For months now, Waiting for Superman, Director Davis Guggeheim's (An Inconvenient Truth) take on the unraveling of the public school system, has been advance-screening like crazy all over the country. For a doc, this is odd. Perhaps the hope is that with enough good word of mouth, people will be willing to stomach spending 90 minutes with one of the most depressing topics of public discourse to date, and then be touched enough to affect change. It's a tall order.
First up, digesting this topic is usually done in torn sweatpants in front of 60 Minutes, not after having paid for tickets, parking, Reese’s and Large Soda, as well as a sitter who already once erased your TiVo. Secondly, regardless of your political leanings, people are exhausted by agents of change. It's just. Too. Much. So why go?
If you can swallow the cringe-worthy stream of stats about where US public education stands scores-wise, world rankings-wise, monies spent-wise, tangled bureaucracy-wise, and union grouchiness-wise, you get a reward: five distinct stories about five disctinctly stunning kids (four of them lower-income minority kids), whose parents are willing to do anything to steer clear of their respective neighborhood schools—schools united by one feature: they are among 2000 in the US that reformers refer to as “dropout factories.” And because these families can’t afford private education, the only way out is acceptance to a charter school. And the only way into a charter school is by winning the lottery--a lottery that the film builds and builds to, and finally lets play out in some of the most gripping, nail-biting 15 minutes of celluloid out there.
If you trust the depiction of these charter schools in the film, they are loving, but rigorous academic environments that immediately start improving the hands these kids have been dealt. Even the classroom lighting is better than at the sub-standard schools in the film. And though each of our young heroes is competing with hundreds of other kids for very few spaces (significantly reducing the chance for five Hollywood endings), it is precisely these stories, and the stories of a handful of reformers (including Harlem Children's Zone founder Geoffrey Canada, who Guggenheim says is the real Superman), that will make audiences go from outrage to action instead of from despair to resignation. When was the last time wearing torn sweatpants made you want to do that?