Movie review: Waiting for Superman, a riveting look at the public school system
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Opens locally Friday, October 8th, 2010
Run Time: 1 hour, 42 minutes, Rated PG
Directed by Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth)
Great documentaries are able to portray real-world, big-picture issues in a compelling way that touches the core of each individual watching it. They should shed light, uncover truths (or inconvenient truths), and most of all, ignite the audience into action. Waiting for Superman then, is a great documentary.
A Basic Education. The documentary's focus is America's public school system, a broken system that is behind most other civilized nations and inhibits, rather than encourages, academic growth. While takin on the huge task of painting a national problem, the film also focuses on 5 individual students, Anthony, Francisco, Bianca, Daisy, and Emily. All public school students of different ethnicities, background, and wealth, we are able to see different struggles facing not only the students, but the parents and faculty surrounding them. Make no mistake, Waiting for Superman is not a middle-of-the-road, objective look at the public school system, but rather a call to action for us Americans to wake up to what may be the biggest disaster facing our future.
Up, up, and away. The film's title refers to this feeling that we are just waiting for Superman to fly in and save us. By this simple implication, we all know that in reality this isn't going to happen.
The movie builds an argument against public schools, not so much against the concept of them, but how they've been misused and misguided throughout the years. How teachers' unions have all but derailed any real change. Charter schools are shown to be only as strong as the teachers who inhabit them, but there is no denying that a well-run charter school clearly gets results with better-educated and better-equiped students. Because of the overwhelming popularity of these schools, they have to turn away hundreds of students from even enrolling. To fill the few spots that are availabe, they hold lottery raffles...if you're number is called, you are given a chance at a good education. How incredibly sad to see that children's futures are literally decided by a roll of the dice.
No child left behind? Bluntly stated, many children are not given a chance at an education based on their place in society, and their physical location. Those left in the public system are subject to teachers that are guaranteed their jobs regardless of their teaching abilities and classroom results...this due to "tenure", an idea that this movie shows to be old and outdated for todays needs. Why not pay teachers based on results? Forget that the Unions vehemently oppose giving up their tenure, the movie offers a number of solutions instead of just raising a myriad of problems.
Laced brilliantly throughout the documentary are the lives of these 5 children, and their caring parents struggle to get them the education they deserve. All 5 are trying to get into various charter schools, and in the later scenes of the movie, we see their fates as we witness the lottery picks. I was shocked and overwhelmed at the effectiveness of these scenes...it sneaks up on you in a way that is fully unexpected. There is more drama and suspense in these final scenes than I've seen in countless dramatic movies this summer. It sends home the idea that, beyond all of the statistics, we are talking about real people, real lives. Not having the chance at a real education goes against the basic soul of the American Dream, and this chance is being denied to thousands of children throughout the country.
Final Analysis. The movie is non-partisan but it definitely takes a side...that side being that reform is needed immediately. It brings up a ton of interesting points, especially when showing how the system used to work in contrast with how it works in todays world. Sure, I would have liked to hear a clearer argument from the other side of the spectrum, from the teacher unions portrayed so negatively in the movie. I also believe that the filmmaker puts too much of the movie's importance on statistical results, such as how kids are testing, and so on...Anybody who watched the HBO series "The Wire" learned a thing or two about what goes in to "test results", and that good test results doesn't always mean "educated children."
But with all of these issues, and some lingering questions that remained after the film, none of this takes away from the fact that Waiting For Superman is a brilliantly-crafted documentary. As a film, it is an A+, a masterpiece documentary that will leave you with a lasting effect. As an argument against public education....I'd still like to see some other facts and hear some other angles.
In the end sequence, the movie reminds us that although it seems impossible to tackle, we can bring upon change. It is an important life lesson not only relevant for our country's education epidemic, but for all of our problems. Superman doesn't exist, but what he represents (truth, justice, the American way) does and can exist. But it's got to start somewhere.
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