"Won't Back Down" is an inspirational drama. But its opening scene is as horrifying as any slasher flick.

An 8-year-old stands beside her desk in the middle of a classroom, trying to read the simple sentence written on the chalkboard. She looks over to her teacher for guidance, but gets none. Her teacher is completely immersed in the text message she's sending on her smartphone.

What's really scary about this scene is the sense we get that it's taking place across America every day. How many parents realize just how poorly their schools are functioning?

On screen
'Won't Back Down'
2.5 out of 4 stars
Stars: Viola Davis, Maggie Gyllenhaal
Director: Daniel Barnz
Rated: PG for thematic elements and language
Running time: 121 minutes

Malia's mother would be appalled if she could see what goes on in her daughter's second-grade class at Adams Elementary. Thanks to happenstance, she finally does. Jamie Fitzpatrick (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is late taking her daughter Malia (Emily Alyn Lind) to school one day. Class is already in session when she deposits her daughter at her desk.

That texting teacher couldn't care less whether her students leave her class with the ability to read and write, add and subtract. And why should she? She gets paid more than any other teacher at the school, simply because she's been at it so long.

Jamie desperately tries to get her daughter into another school. Zoning rules mean she has to send her child to Adams, unless she can afford private school tuition. She enters a lottery for one of the few spaces available at a new charter school, but Malia doesn't get one of the spots. Then she learns she might have the power to change her child's education herself: She finds out about a parent-trigger law that allows parents to take control of failing schools.

This drama shows exactly how hard it is for parents to turn around failing schools. It's not just that most are too busy to spend the time it takes. Bureaucracy and teachers unions make it nearly impossible to institute any real reform.

Jamie finds a couple of allies, though. One is a teacher who does care, but has gotten ground down by a system that rewards failure. "Want to start a school with me?" the slightly naive and hopelessly optimistic Jamie asks Nona Alberts (Viola Davis).

This is a gripping story, with only a few moments of awkwardness as policy details and pros and cons are explained. There's an odd conflict at the heart of this tale, though. Jamie is upset because Malia's teacher won't stay after school to help her daughter read -- union rules won't allow it. But should any parent rely completely on someone else to give their child basic life skills? Perhaps Jamie needs to learn that parents can take control, not just of their children's schools, but their educations, too.

(Editor's note: This movie was produced by Walden Media, a subsidiary of AEG. AEG is part of Anschutz Co., which also owns The Washington Examiner).