Tangled plots hurt ‘Won’t Back Down’

WALDEN MEDIA Nona Alberts (Viola Davis, left) and Jamie Fitzpatrick (Maggie Gyllenhaal) in a scene from “Won’t Back Down.”

Critics describe some films as being a Hallmark or Lifetime movie — films that are loaded with cliched characters and life-changing transformations presented in an overly sentimental fashion.

While this comparison is often not a compliment, there’s nothing wrong with a feature film that exhibits such tendencies if they are handled in a clear way.

“Won’t Back Down” is a Lifetime film that lacks clarity. It bounces through hot-button issues with such randomness that the central message ends up muddied.

At the heart is the story of two mothers (Viola Davis, Maggie Gyllenhaal) who decide to transform their children’s failing inner-city Pittsburgh school.

They start the long bureaucratic process of taking over the school so they can run it, despite resistance from the faculty, administration, parents and the teacher’s union.

Those actions would be enough for any film. But the script by Brin Hill and director Daniel Barnz piles on the emotional fodder with story lines about dyslexia, learning disorders, marital problems and poverty. In an effort to serve them all, none get complete attention.

“Won’t Back Down” is inspired by actual events. That means all of these different plot points could have come from the real story.

But life is often messy and it’s up to a filmmaker to choose a clear direction when trying to tell, or re-tell, a story. Writers and directors have the benefit of hindsight — to look at the messiest of situations and turn the madness into meaningful moments.

There’s a scene where Gyllenhaal’s character makes an impassioned plea to the board about to vote on the fate of the takeover. She asks, “Have we forgot what we’re here for? We’re here for the children.”

Barnz should have asked that question of himself during filming.

He also might have asked himself if being heavy-handed was the best way to go.

In making his point about how bad the teachers are in this school, Barnz has one instructor shopping for shoes online while her class turns into “Lord of the Flies.”

Buried under all of the distracting elements is a gem of an idea. But the numerous tangled plots leave this story of class struggle incomplete.

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