Short of a heroic rescue by Superman, what will it take to fix America's broken education system? The question seems to motivate documentarian Davis Guggenheim in Waiting for Superman, which tackles one of our most complicated problems: public education. Though he has made films on more controversial subjects (the Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth addressed global warming), and on less (the guitar rock documentary It Might Get Loud), writer/director Guggenheim here tackles an indisputably important, bipartisan issue—one that we all have a stake in.
It might seem a tall order to make a succinct, engaging documentary on something like "the problems of education in America today," and indeed it is. But Waiting for Superman manages the task, in part because Guggenheim (who narrates the film) frames the issue in personal terms, by focusing on five individual students and their families. Anthony, Biana, Daisy, Emily and Francisco are the film's protagonists—American public school students ranging in age from kindergarten to eighth grade. What unites these five is that each is trying to win a spot in a public charter school, in hopes of receiving a high quality education instead of (in some cases) an abysmal, small-chance-of-success education at notoriously failing schools. For these students, the lottery that will determine whether they can go to charter school truly will decide their fate. It's the difference between being set on a track where college is expected and one where even a high school diploma is improbable.
Whether or not the disparity and "opportunity gap" between charter and "regular" schools is actually this extreme is an open question, but Guggenheim convincingly, wrenchingly shows us that for these ...1