Waiting For Superman

There have been a spate of tiny, reform-touting documentaries lamenting the dismal state of American public education recently, including The Cartel, The Lottery, Teached and Paramount Duty, but the 800-pound gorilla on the block is Davis Guggenheim's Waiting For Superman. As director of the Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth, Guggenheim built up a following of admirers, swayed by science, on the political left and in the middle — and an equally passionate cabal of detractors on the right, who decried his "activist" filmmaking. This film would seem to be a less politicized issue to tackle, but that would also assume our capacity for partisan scapegoating is somehow on the wane.

Taking its name from an anecdote about intractable stasis and the absence of any single superhuman rescuer, the movie explores a variety of reasons for public school underachievement, and paints a fairly dire portrait of future American readiness in a global economy. Unions and entrenched bureaucracies take plenty of heat; perhaps most frustrating is how Michelle Rhee, chancellor of the Washington, D.C. Public School system, has a merit-pay proposal stymied by a teachers' union that won't even let it come to a vote.

Still, Guggenheim doesn't demonize in a blind rage; instead, he flips the script on the conventional wisdom that failing kids are a product of failing (largely urban) neighborhoods and uninterested parents, showing instead how schools that let down children actually help foster larger social unrest, and how smart, targeted reform — including the type peddled by Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children's Zone — can not merely close but flat out obliterate the achievement gap between poor kids and those in better economic households.

While it has glancing statistical devastation on its side (there are more than 2,000 so-called dropout factories in the United States, where more than 40 percent of high school attendees fail to graduate), Waiting For Superman also has an unhurried rhythm and personal grounding (Guggenheim narrates the movie, and talks about his tough decision to send his own children to private school) that produce an emotional wallop as it winds its way toward a montage finale involving various educational lotteries. There may not be a more heartbreaking scene this year than Anthony, a fifth-grader being raised alone by his grandmother, talking quietly about wanting a better life for his own future kids, and them not having to grow up in "this environment." (Paramount, PG, 102 minutes)


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