Okay, I get it. If I had kids and I walked into their school and saw children openly brawling with no consequences and teachers sitting at their desks ignoring students, texting and shopping online, doing everything just short of shooting up heroin while standing in front of the chalkboard, I would get angry. I would express my concerns to the powers that be. I would become an activist parent. I would yell loudly. And if the teacher's union tried to battle me I would battle back and force their hand at firing blatantly incompetent educators. All of these actions would be reasonable.
In this sluggish story of paperwork and school district politics, a movie that's determined to balance inspiration and a scolding, eat-your-vegetables tone, that very thing happens to Maggie Gyllenhaal. By way of response she organizes her own charter school and spends the two-hour running time ignoring legitimate questions regarding the salary, workload and protection of the teachers who don't behave like Ryan Gosling in Half Nelson (hint: that's the one where he's a teacher and also a crackhead).
Gyllenhaal corrals defeated classroom veteran Viola Davis to help her and woos Oscar Isaac (as the good-looking, energetic teacher with a ukelele, Johnny Cash posters in his classroom and line-dancing-based lessons where kids sing songs about math), even though her plan aims to break the back of the teacher's union and he's kind of a fan of having the option to collectively bargain for a living wage and pension. Naturally, his selfish ideas about his life and career are doomed to wilt under the sex-hypnotism and winsomely earnest truth of Maggie G's struggle.
It would be one thing if this propaganda film were exciting to watch, but it's not; a more tedious session of finger-wagging has not bored the multiplex since the last anti-teacher-union movie hit town (that would be the documentary Waiting for Superman). And it would be another thing if this propaganda film ever once considered a more nuanced approach to the subject than people yelling, "FIX THIS SCHOOL!" Because, yes, by all means, fix the schools. No reasonable person wants them not-fixed. But fix them so that the kids learn and the parents are happy and the teachers are at least as well-compensated as a regional manager at Applebees. And make sure your movie on the subject stays honest and doesn't stonewall when the teacher characters ask real-life questions about their own livelihoods. Because there are real-life answers to those questions and none of them are sufficiently addressed by, "FIX THIS SCHOOL!"
Oh yes, one more thing. Be suspicious of any production company (in this case it's Walden Media) that backs a movie this gung-ho for one-sided school reform, especially when that production company is also in the business of developing educational materials. They have a huge financial stake in opening up public education to corporate influence. Yep.
So good luck, schools! May you survive and thrive and keep good educators! We're all supporting you! That is, until some group of angry parents in Texas decide to have the science teacher's head on a plate for telling kids that the Earth is round. Then you're on your own.