In "Waiting for 'Superman,' " a withering examination of the country's public school system, documentarian Davis Guggenheim, an Oscar winner for his incisive Al Gore-global warming treatise, "An Inconvenient Truth," proves as potent a storyteller and showman as activist filmmaker with a serious issue on his mind.
Much of the film is told compellingly and heartbreakingly through the wide-eyed innocence of five children. There is Anthony, a Washington, D.C., fifth-grader; Daisy, same grade, 3,000 miles away in East L.A.; Francisco, a Bronx first-grader; Bianca, a Harlem kindergartener; and Emily, a Silicon Valley eighth-grader. No children profiled come from the great swatch of the American Heartland, which nags around the edges of this riveting portrait, though the statistics offered up would suggest the problems are as pervasive as they are entrenched. The film is already kicking up dust in large part because of what is arguably a broadside attack on teachers unions, and indeed they do not fare well on the Guggenheim scale.
The kids chosen after a search that was narrowed first to 20, then five, are stoic, funny, determined, earnest and smart. They all have parents or grandparents forming a net of emotional, if not economic, support. Though most are living below or near the poverty line, they seem to have everything else going for them -- except for the failing public schools to which they are assigned. So disarming is this group, it's easy to understand why the film won the audience award at the Sundance Film Festival, where it premiered early this year.
As we meet the students, they are wrapped up in hopes -- theirs and their parents -- for a better future made possible by academic excellence. Starting in late 2008 and for nearly a year, the filmmaker and his team followed along as the families applied for the specialized charter or free private schools in their area. The odds are not good and range from 5% for Francisco to get into the Harlem Success Academy to 50% for Anthony to make it into Washington's SEED Charter School. In each case, a lottery will determine their fate, and for some of the five, it will not be a happy ending.
This is a far more confident Guggenheim than we saw in his first swing at education in 2001, as he tracked a handful of new teachers in the Peabody-winning "The First Year."
But what you can feel still, and what increasingly infuses his work, is the passionate way the filmmaker warms to his topic and the excellent eye he has in casting his subjects. He is clearly looking to make converts as much as start a conversation, and while not a provocateur in the way of Michael Moore, he is no less insistent that he is right.
Guggenheim begins with a disclaimer of sorts, that his children -- he and his wife, actress Elisabeth Shue, have three, ranging in age from 4 to 12 -- have the advantage of attending top Los Angeles-area private schools, though it feels a bit like liberal guilt talking. (At the same time, he distances himself from liberal orthodoxy on education in his searing criticism of the unions.) Regardless, he moves quickly away from the personal and begins laying out his case for public schools as he envisions they should be, which leans heavily toward charter programs.
To ground his argument, the filmmaker uses a forceful group of progressive educators, D.C. public school Chancellor Michelle Rhee and KIPP school founders David Levin and Mike Feinberg among them. But it is the charismatic Geoffrey Canada, who heads the Harlem Children's Zone, a "wraparound" system begun in 1997 with children's educational and social needs covered from birth through college, who becomes the spine of the argument for change. There are no real dissenters in the bunch, and what we see of the other side is mostly disheartening news footage of American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten arguing against various issues, most stridently merit systems for evaluating teachers, long a flashpoint in any public school debate. What the educators don't address -- the reams of statistics on education, its failures, its successes, its costs -- are supplied by graphics so engagingly high-tech yet simple that they are like picture books for first-graders.
Brick by brick, Guggenheim tears apart the current system, and brick by brick he puts up his idealized schoolhouse filled with passionate teachers ready to rap their math lessons or do whatever it takes for kids to learn. It's hard not to get caught up in the possibilities. Just how right he is, how accurate his statistics, how successful the innovators will be long-term, only time will tell. For Daisy, Anthony, Emily, Francisco, Bianca and the millions of others who flow through our public school system, you hope that if nothing else the film will invigorate a debate that makes schools better. Meanwhile, give Guggenheim an A for effort.
'Waiting for "Superman" '
MPAA rating: PG for some thematic material, mild language and incidental smoking
Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes
Playing: ArcLight Hollywood, Landmark Theatres, West L.A.