Waiting for "Superman" (Paramount), a documentary about school reform directed by Davis Guggenheim ( An Inconvenient Truth), is an unabashedly polemical film that's informative, urgent, heartbreaking and, in the end, incomplete. It plays like the first installment in what should be a whole series of films raking the muck of our disgraceful public education system. You leave the film convinced that radical change is necessary but uncomfortable with the closing voice-over that assures you how simple it will be to implement it.
The film follows five American children of elementary- to middle-school age: Anthony in D.C., Daisy in Los Angeles, Bianca in Harlem, Francisco in the Bronx, and Emily in Silicon Valley. All of them are bright, happy children with hopes and dreams and those adorable outsized kid teeth, and all of them are bound for local public schools with graduation rates that are among the worst in the country, the kind of places known in education circles as "dropout factories." (Tellingly, it's Emily, the white middle-class girl, who has the most choice; her zoned school is only subpar, not terrible.) All the kids' parents are angling to get them into alternate charter schools with better reputations, but the application process is long and the odds, in some cases, comparable to Vegas.
The stats alone are enough to make you cry. Keeping a prison inmate alive for a year costs more than twice as much as sending a child to public school (and prison is, in fact, where a large percentage of boys from the nation's worst schools end up). On a list of developed countries, the U.S. consistently ranks near the bottom in math, reading, and science. (The one category in which we excel has to do with schoolchildren's unrealistically high opinions of their own performance.) These grim statistics are creatively displayed with peppy graphics like those in An Inconvenient Truth, and they keep the proceedings from too closely resembling a slide presentation at a policy summit.
The end-of-year lottery sequence is the movie's emotional climax, and, boy, is it grueling. The numbers are pitiless: One Harlem school, to which two of the film's subjects are applying, will choose 35 candidates from a pool of more than 700. The camera cuts among four different rooms around the country, all packed with families waiting for a ball to drop out of a machine or a name to be pulled out of a hat, and we know that even if all five of "our" kids are chosen (which they won't be), hundreds of other children's futures are at the mercy of random chance. A repeated close-up of Daisy's small crossed fingers as she waits is sure to get the waterworks flowing.
On The Root, R. L'Heureux Lewis argues that this film's vision of charter schools as the cure for what ails American education is too simplistic, and even without being an education expert, I can sense that he's right. Guggenheim cherry-picks his examples, and for every charter school that produces excellent results, there are many more that don't. But even so, Waiting for "Superman" excels at laying out the chicken-and-egg problem of inner-city education, which I haven't ever seen exposed in such stark terms (except on the TV show The Wire): Is it failing neighborhoods that produce failing schools, or the reverse?
The film's title (with its inexplicable quote marks) comes from an anecdote told by the inspiring education activist Geoffrey Canada, who describes his heartbreak as a child on learning that Superman wasn't real. He was crushed not because his comic-book fantasies had been shattered but because, as a boy in a failing school, he suddenly realized that "there was no one out there with enough power to save us." What makes Canada's words so poignant is that they're still true: There is no one panacea out there for our sick educational system. This otherwise thoughtful and passionate documentary does its subject a disservice by glossing over that inconvenient truth.