Tuesday, March 29, 2011

New Release Review: Waiting for Superman (Davis Guggenheim, 2010)

Award-winning documentary Waiting for Superman is an engrossing and comprehensive insight into the failures of the public education system in the United States. Director David Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth), through his tracking of five children through their school experiences, seeks to reveal and analyze the ways the system is failing, and interviews several education reformers about the inventive methods they believe can fix the problem.

For three of the children; Anthony, Daisy and Emily, their commitment to learning and desire to escape the public system and attend college is uplifting and inspiring. Anthony is in the fifth grade at a public school in Washington D.C, which is rated one of the worst in the country. Having lost his father to drug use, he wants to grow up and be successful and create a childhood for his own children superior to his own. Daisy, who resides in East L.A, has already written to the medical school she wishes to attend in the future. While driven to learn all that she can, the failures of her school will seriously jeopardize her chances of making it to college. Emily's poor math marks at her Silicon Valley school will likely relegate her to a lower academic stream, and little prospect of choosing the college of her choice. For first-graders Bianca and Francisco, Guggenheim speaks more to their mothers, who are desperately trying to find alternative education for their children. Bianca lives in Harlem, where her mother is struggling to pay the tuition fees at her local Catholic School because she doesn't feel comfortable sending her daughter to the public one. While Francisco's mother works hard with him at their Bronx home, only to discover that he has experienced early struggles at school. With nowhere else to turn, each of these families decide to apply for the admission of their children to the independently-run Charter Schools set up in disadvantaged areas by visionary educational reformers. But the competition is fierce, with only limited spots available, and whether these children are accepted or not is decided by a public lottery.

To think that whether or not these children will receive adequate education is decided by a bouncing ball, or a random assignment, is tremendously troubling. You would think, in a developed country like America, that every child would have the right to quality education. The film examines a variety of reasons to stipulate why this is the case. Poor funding, overcrowded classrooms, unfairly scaled grading, teacher incompetency in addition to the children's broken homes are all thrown around as reasons why the system is failing. Guggenheim quickly establishes that it would take someone with superhuman powers to fix this gargantuan problem, and because none like Superman exist, it appears to be solely up to the founders of these independent school networks, and headstrong revolutionary chancellors like Michelle Rhee. Rhee, during her term, outraged the Teachers Unions by closing schools, firing principles and attempting to overturn contracts of Tenure. One of the most passionate and inspiring characters is Geoffrey Canada, who runs a Charter school covering an impoverished area of Harlem. He lengthens the school day and year, has smaller class sizes and employs quality teachers for tuition. The greatest moments of the film stem from his confidence that he can transform a struggling and disadvantaged child into a college graduate. The academic results of the Charter schools, as expressed in the film, are better than even higher-funded and expensive private schools. The credibility of these statistics has been the front of controversy since the film's release, though.

To complement the footage of the children, and the accounts of Canada, Rhee and Bill Gates are a series of animated graphics to assist us to digest the often-horrifying statistics. Among these are the revelations about the plummeting reading and math levels of children across the country, and comparisons made between the money spent on catering for school dropouts who end up in prison versus the cost of a year of private school tuition. The film's climax is the most heartbreaking of all. As we see the five families attend their separate lotteries, hoping desperately to hear their number called. Perhaps their lives will be changed forever. The disappointment on the faces of the unlucky ones will resonate with viewers long after the final credits. Waiting for Superman is engrossing, maddening, uplifting and ultimately heartbreaking. A very well made documentary that tackles very troubling issues. Despite centering its view on American schools, the desperation of their families, especially Bianca's and Francisco's mothers, will be appreciated by anyone. Certainly worth a look.

My Rating: 4 Stars (B)


  1. Nice review Andy. I thought you saw this a while back?

  2. Thanks Sam. I didn't see it that long ago. Remember I saw it before work that day! I reviewed it on March 29th.