An Inconvenient Truth director Davis Guggenheim really loves depressing the shit out of you. And if chronicling the impending end of the world wasn’t enough, he also showed us a shambling, senior citizen Jimmy Page in It Might Get Loud. For his most downer doc yet, Guggenheim sets his sights on our country’s troubled public school system, with predictably dire conclusions.
Painting a giant “kick me” sign on the back of powerful teacher’s unions, Waiting For ‘Superman’ presents an alarming array of statistics, often visualized by snarky cartoons. I won’t pretend to be knowledgeable enough on the subject to debate the veracity of many of the blanket assertions, but I’m willing to admit he’s overlooking some larger issues regarding systemic poverty and social inequities, while the tricky matter of private funding is elided altogether. Then again, it looks awfully cushy to have a job where it’s impossible to get fired, even if you just read the newspaper while your students shoot craps on the classroom floor. (The hidden-camera footage of D.C. school conditions is appalling.)
It’s impossible not to be moved when Waiting For ‘Superman' follows a handful of promising young inner-city kids aching to find placement in their local, thriving charter schools. Firebrand educator Geoffrey Canada, president of the Harlem Children’s Zone, explains the unwieldy title, as he’d always imagined George Reeves swooping in to rescue a broken system. Canada’s impressive charter schools stick to high standards and full accountability, and from the evidence on screen they seem to be making a difference—even though I’m still not sure where all the money’s coming from.
The final reel is almost unbearable to watch, as the children’s futures are surrendered to a lottery. Depending on the luck of the draw, these kids could end up on the path to either college or jail. It’s a sickening thought, and however flawed, Guggeheim’s film should at least jump-start a discussion.