Waiting for ''Superman''
Directed by David Guggenheim
It's hard to imagine a starker moment than the one that comes at the end of Waiting for ''Superman,'' David Guggenheim's devastating documentary on the public school system. In it, families crowd into auditoriums to participate in a lottery where winning children get a spot in a good school while the rest—up to 90% of applicants—are left to attend one no one has any faith in.
When you consider all the socioeconomic troubles that revolve around education, it's hard to escape the idea that the losers have been condemned to lives of near-impossible upward mobility. In one of the best documentaries of the year, Guggenheim illustrates what went wrong with the system, why, and how it can be fixed.
The most surprising conclusion reached is that teacher unions are the biggest obstacles to reform, especially the easy granting of tenure that makes it almost impossible to fire bad teachers. Simple logic suggests that this can't be the sole factor (there's little about the impact of under-funded districts or No Child Left Behind standards), but the evidence presented is compelling and the examples of lax educators or skewed spending priorities are enraging.
Waiting wisely keeps a cool, mature tone throughout; there's none of the tiresome shtick where embarrassing clips are used in place of opposing views and hand wringing is offered instead of answers. Everyone gets a fair hearing here, even union leader Randi Weingarten, though we don't get her response on the tenure issue.
As with his An Inconvenient Truth, Guggenheim makes effective use of graphics and music (though his playing of ''American Idiot'' may be a bit too on the nose), and the kids he follows through the lottery process are wonderfully engaging. You root for the long odds to favor them because you know the alternative, but you don't forget that the rest of the kids also deserve a fair shot.
The iconic image of global warming is of a polar bear on a floe that seems ready to crumble beneath it. The bleak prospects Waiting suggests for the nation's children (our future, don't forget) is a reminder of that image.
Opens September 24