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You Want What Now?
Not exactly a guidebook to universal education
by Molly Templeton
WAITING FOR “SUPERMAN”: Directed by Davis Guggenheim. Written by Guggenheim and Billy Kimball. Cinematography, Robert Richman and Erich Roland. Music, Christophe Beck. Editing, Jay Cassidy, Greg Finton and Kim Roberts. Paramount Vantage, 2010. PG. 102 minutes.
I can’t remember the last time a documentary left me choked up at the end. Director Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth)’s Waiting for “Superman” is nothing if not effective in the heartstring-tugging sense. Part of its narrative concerns the stories and futures of a handful of students, each of which is pinning his or her hopes on the slim chances of getting into a charter school. Their fates are carried by a shiny ball, or a slip of paper, or a randomized number. As Guggenheim builds his argument — flawed and limited as it is — he loops back again and again to these kids and their dreams. One wants to be a vet or a doctor. Another speaks frankly about his father, who was an addict. All of them want to go to school and have parents or grandparents who want to find their kids the best school possible.
Waiting for “Superman” has its heart in the right place. It’s a plea for change, and it’s a search for a solution to an incredibly complicated problem. But it’s more successful at being the former than the latter. Guggenheim deftly uses the narratives of the kids he follows to embody the struggle many, many more kids and their parents are facing when it comes to education, but the film is simultaneously very pointed — look how great these charter schools are! — and largely unconvincing. Isn’t there more to determining student progress and the quality of a school than test scores and rankings? What exactly makes a great teacher? How do you track progress, deal with the individual needs of students and develop a system that suits as many kids as possible? Don’t the teachers’ unions protect good teachers as well as serving to keep “lemon” teachers employed, as the film angrily points out?
Guggenheim’s film should — and will — start a conversation. Filled with quirky animation, sympathetic parents, passionate advocates and tense conflicts, it paints an unflattering portrait of a system that does sometimes seem, as one administrator says, to serve adults more than children. But Guggenheim’s only real criticism of the charter schools is implicit in the outcome of their lotteries — which aren’t all positive. It’s clear these schools don’t have enough room for every kid, but the question of how to take what the charters do well and apply it to the large school system seems under-considered.
If all Waiting for “Superman” intends is to put this issue in the front of our minds, it succeeds, and it’s a powerful reminder that a good education is a privilege when, in an ideal world, it would be a right. But there’s an uncomfortable tension between the feel of the film — which is sharp, ultimately optimistic and understandably frustrated — and what it actually does. It wants to move viewers. Still: Move viewers to what, exactly? To anger and outrage? I left the theater heartbroken for the kids who didn’t make it into the schools they were dreaming of. Watching a little girl cry because her best chance has slipped away should shake the hardest hearts, even if you’re aware, through your anger, that you’re being pushed to feel this way by the film’s carefully structured conclusion. But these kids and their parents aren’t waiting for a hero; they’re out looking for the best schools they can find or afford. What about the kids whose parents are uninvolved or too busy to fight those battles? What are the other solutions? How do schools train and lure the best and most gifted teachers? What’s the effect of a film that wants you to do something but isn’t truly considering all the things that might need to be done?
Waiting for “Superman” is now playing at the Bijou.