Single-mom Jamie (Maggie Gyllenhaal) sends her dyslexic daughter to an inner-city public school in Pennsylvania, but she grows distraught when the beleaguered teacher won't address her daughter's inability to read. She pleads with other teachers and administrators to move her daughter to another class, but nothing changes. The school is under siege by budget cuts, low morale, antiquated rules and a union that protects bad teachers.
Nona (Viola Davis) is a teacher at the school but has family problems of her own. As her marriage is falling apart, her own son is being bullied at school, and Nona also feels the burden of the failing school system.
Jamie soon discovers that if she can get the support of 18 of the school's teachers along with a group of parents, they can shut down the current administration and start anew with a charter school. But many hazards await.
Using her talents as a salesperson — she works in a used car lot — Jamie convinces Nona to start a campaign to start a charter school. But the teachers are not easy to convince. Teacher Breena (Rosie Perez) is torn between keeping her current safety net and risking her job to make a better educational experience for the kids. Under pressure from the teacher's union, it's no easy decision.
The head of the teacher's union is Evelyn (Holly Hunter), an opinionated woman who comes from a long line of union activists. Evelyn seeks out Jamie and offers her a deal that puts the charter school's success at risk. It's discouraging how political public education can be.
Gyllenhaal shines as Jamie, a tattooed, overworked mom who is full of fight. Her love interest, Michael — played by a charming Oscar Isaac — adds depth and complexity to a story that could be boring and straightforward. There are no easy decisions in this David and Goliath tale where our kids' futures are at stake.
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