Davis Guggenheim, who won an Academy Award for An Inconvenient Truth, here presents another inconvenient truth: The United States public school system just isn't working. This comes as a shock to absolutely no one, but unlike most recent nonfiction pieces, most of which tend to play partisan politics (usually siding with the left), Waiting for "Superman" is a rare one that people from all walks of life can rally behind.
Still, what it does share in common with those other documentaries in this downtrodden age is its belief that we lowly citizens can all band together to help fix the problem. As usual, this is as much wishful thinking on the part of the filmmakers as it is a viable reality, and Waiting for "Superman" is predictably heavy on the outrage and frustration and light on the inspiration and hope. But because it's a universal issue that affects legions of folks across the country — particularly the children — it's the sort of film that begs to be seen.
Documentaries are often no different than their fictional brethren in that they follow a template that provides viewers with easily designated good guys and bad guys. Here, the clear-cut hero is the passionate and charismatic Geoffrey Canada, head of the Harlem Children's Zone and one of the nation's most successful education reformers.
The anti-hero(ine) role falls to Michelle Rhee, the controversial chancellor of Washington, DC's public schools system whose hardline methods have improved the capital's schools but angered many adults in the process (Rhee, who correctly notes that it always ends up being about the adults instead of the kids, resigned her post Oct. 13).
As for the villain, that would be the American Federation of Teachers, painted here as a rigid union whose membership is more interested in protecting the terrible teachers among its ranks than in serving the children.
Speaking of the children, the heart of the film of course rests with its youngest subjects, five students (in L.A., NYC and D.C.) whose best chance at having a bright future lies in whether they'll be randomly selected in their respective locales' education lotteries to be transferred from their low-performing neighborhood schools to successful charter schools. While this climactic section of the picture proves to be the most schematic (whose name or number will pop up next?), it's impossible not to be left either elated or heartbroken, depending on which way the (lottery) ball bounces.