This uplifting educational drama from Daniel Barnz (writer-director of Beastly) stars Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis as a pair of mothers — one a hardworking receptionist by day/barmaid by night, the other a teacher on verge of burning out — who team up to take over their failing school, if only they can fight the overwhelming bureaucracy of the school system, the attack-dog stance of the teacher’s union and the general apathy of parents who have lost hope. Since it is based on true events, especially a hot button political topic like education, there’s the likelihood that the film will generate debate, but, with its by-the-book underdog story, it fails to offer any important facts from either side to help inform viewers.
In fact, the story, at every turn, backs away from the issues. Fortunately, Gyllenhaal and Davis are professionals and unwilling to phone in a performance, even when we might be willing to accept their collect calls. I would argue that this is the first time in quite a while where Davis has had occasion, no matter how brief, to smile onscreen. Hopefully directors will take note because, she certainly can light up a screen and every beating heart in view, if given the chance. Despite genuinely engaging performances from the two leads and good-to-great intentions, this inspirational tale can’t overcome the contrived and messy personal melodrama that Barnz (and by extension, most of Hollywood) believes must be included in order to attract Bravo-weaned reality television lovers. Now in theaters. (PG) Grade: D+
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