Director:  Davis Guggenheim,
Watched in:  Theater
Rating:  4/5.  


Director Davis Guggenheim admits at the beginning of his sad and haunting film, Waiting For Superman, that he drives his own daughters to a private school every morning, passing by three public schools that are nearer to his home. His guilt over a decision he once promised himself he would not make has driven him to make this movie, a vivid and intimate examination of the crisis confronting education in America.

Guggenheim tells the stories of 5 young students in California, New York and Washington D.C., all with eager minds but meager prospects for a quality education in their hometowns. Luckily, they are blessed with caring parents and grandparents, some of who are making up for their own lack of education by focusing with heartbreaking tenacity on the future of their children. They all believe that education, graduating from high school and going to college, is the key to a better life in America. They are right, but America—its politicians and its teachers’ unions—litter the path to academic success with bureaucratic obstacles. In the case of the families featured in Waiting For Superman, their only hope lies in a lottery, a literal roulette, to determine their acceptance into the few schools that qualify as institutions of learning rather than holding pens for future at-risk youth.

Woven throughout this increasingly suspenseful story are the damning statistics and research that paint a pathetic picture of the last 40 years in American education. It seems that every president, from LBJ to Obama, have made the statement that nothing is more important than education, yet as a nation we are consistently failing our kids and falling further and further behind the rest of the developed world. Guggenheim skillfully blends old industrial footage, news clips, animation and talking head interviews with education reformers into a depressing indictment of political inaction and intractable unions, which protect bad teachers from being fired and mount obstinate campaigns to block merit pay.

Guggenheim’s film is thin on classroom footage. We don’t get a clear sense of what makes a great teacher or a poor teacher. Strategies for success are not charted. There is no single path to achievement. And the movie is not interested in positive uplift. The students and schools that succeed in America—and there are many—aren’t the focus of this film. Waiting For Superman is intended to wake us up to yet another aspect of American society that seems to be crumbling before our eyes—along with our political system, our media, our roads and buildings, our sense of truth, accuracy and decency. Guggenheim picked these five kids and their concerned, caring, loving parents out of the millions available and, during the tense lottery that ends the film, watches their eyes and expressions as the numbered balls tumble out of their cages. Lives reduced to a roll of the dice. At 7, 10, 12 years old, these kids are already learning the only lesson that seems to matter in America: you are either a have or a have-not.