WAITING FOR SUPERMAN (Dir. Davis Guggenheim, 2010)

AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH director Davis Guggenheim turns his lens on America’s public educational system, and he sure doesn’t like what he sees.

Guggenheim, and producer Lesley Chilcott, explore the vast problems in what they believe is a broken system full of “drop-out factories” and “academic sinkholes.”

The film intertwines 2 threads – one in which reformers like former D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, educators like Geoffrey Canada, and narrator Guggenheim discuss how conditions got so convoluted, and the other follows 5 kids, from 5 different backgrounds and locations, identified only as Anthony, Daisy, Francisco and Emily as they try to get into good charter schools.

It all adds up to a big thesis that blames teacher’s unions, political bickering, conflicted regulations, mixed agendas, outdated cirriculums, and plainly the legions of chronically bad teachers.

In one of the most amusingly informative sequences a previously hidden practice is exposed: “The dance of the lemons”. It involves principals shuffling low performing tenured teachers to other schools since they can’t be fired.

Unfortunately the tropes of so many documentaries – pop song punctuation, ominous piano tinkling, archival film footage (do they really need clips from the ’50s George Reeves Superman TV show to make sense of the film’s title?), and flat animation to illustrate statistics – waters down the effect.

However, there is much to get caught up in here. The kids’ stories (particularly Anthony’s whose father died of a drug overdose) are emotionally compelling – you’ll root for them as they nervously wait on the results of their chosen schools’ lottery draws.

This is another one of those documentaries that earnestly wants to inspire change, and like Guggenheim’s “An Inconvenient Truth” and the films of Michael Moore its ending makes a ‘it’s your turn now’ plea to the audience for advocacy.

This film is most likely to cause more debate than actual change, for “Waiting For ‘Superman'” is ultimately a glorified over-reaching pro-teacher, anti-union infomercial, as sincere as it is.

Extras: “Changing the Odds” – a featurette that looks at innovative programs that are changing public education, “Public Education Updates” – Changes which have taken place since the making of the film, “A Conversation with Davis Guggenheim”, another featurette “The Future Is In Our Classrooms”, “The Making of “Shine”: the film’s title track by musician John Legend, deleted scenes, and commentary by Director Davis Guggenheim and Producer Lesley Chilcott.

More later…

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