Davis Guggenheim puts a human face on an unwieldy, seemingly unsolvable problem - the wretched state of America's public schools - in his latest documentary, "Waiting for 'Superman.'"
The director of the Academy Award-winning "An Inconvenient Truth" naturally has plenty of statistics to back up his points: state-by-state deficiency levels in math and reading, the cost of incarcerating a prisoner vs. sending a kid to 12 years of private school, the number of bad teachers who lose their jobs each year (it's low, given the protections they enjoy under tenure).
All staggering stuff - especially depressing if you're the parent of a young child. But Guggenheim offers some glimmers of hope in the alternative and charter schools cropping up across the country, and in the educators who dare to take a fresh approach. There's also suspense and heartbreaking human drama as he follows five kids - four of whom live in impoverished areas - waiting to find out whether they've won the lottery to nab a rare opening in these types of institutions.
The filmmaker himself acknowledges he was inspired to make "Waiting for 'Superman'" while driving past decaying public schools en route to dropping off his three kids (with wife Elisabeth Shue) at an expensive private school. He says he knows he and his family are lucky, which is smart in that it weakens possible criticism of him as being an out-of-touch elitist. His intentions certainly seem to be in the right place, as they were when he made his debut documentary, 2001's "The First Year," about five teachers struggling as they started out at some tough schools.
Here, he lets us get to know five kids and their families in Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area, Washington D.C., the Bronx and Harlem - all bursting with potential and eager to learn, all facing uncertain futures because of the sub-par quality of the schools in their areas.
He also mixes in interviews with education leaders including Washington D.C.'s public schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, who shook things up with suggestions for reform such as firing bad teachers and offering merit pay to good ones, and Geoffrey Canada, creator of the Harlem Children's Zone, which aims to improve high school and college graduation rates.
The charismatic Canada is also the inspiration for the film's title: He recalls that, growing up poor in the South Bronx, he always dreamed that a superhero would swoop down to fix his school and his neighborhood. (Guggenheim tortures this metaphor with repeated footage of George Reeves from the black-and-white "Adventures of Superman" TV series from the 1950s.) Meanwhile, Randi Weingarten, head of the powerful American Federation of Teachers, comes off as a singular villain, fiercely protecting her union members regardless of whether they're doing their jobs adequately.
But the real drama comes at the end, as we watch and wait along with the film's five young stars to find out the results of lotteries that could land them coveted spots in alternative schools. Even if you don't have kids of your own, you'll find it hard not to get sucked in emotionally; this is just one example of how Guggenheim so adeptly takes a potentially dry topic and makes is cinematic.
Those outcomes - and the film as a whole - won't even come close to solving all the socio-economic and educational problems raised here. But they're a start.
"Waiting for 'Superman,'" a Paramount Pictures release, is rated PG for some thematic material, mild language and incidental smoking. Running time: 102 minutes.