Waiting for Superman is not, as I had hoped, yet another reboot of a franchise that never quite recovered from Richard Pryor's scheme to steal the partial pennies from Robert Vaughn. Instead, it’s a documentary from Davis Guggenheim about how schools are failing, and one thing you can do about it. The one thing you can do, by the way, is hope you are really, really lucky.
Are you ready for some shocking news? You probably are going to read this and fall over from the shock. Here it is: some public schools are doing a lousy job educating our kids. Amazing, right? You’re sitting there going, “I thought all schools in America were high-performing brain factories. This information turns that idea on its head!” Here’s another zinger for you: life is not fair. Again, you think, “Wowza, what other new and shocking information will be revealed?”
Of course, neither of those little pieces of information are surprising, as both have been stated over and over again in movies, television, books, newspaper articles, magazines, and any other information source known to man. Some schools, especially in poor neighborhoods, stink, and life isn’t fair. It’s information that surprises nobody. Well, almost nobody. Apparently, director Davis Guggenheim was surprised, and thought you might be, too.
Guggenheim, the director of the global-warming PowerPoint presentation An Inconvenient Truth, turns his documentary camera toward kids, parents, teachers, administrators, and assorted talking heads to discuss what’s wrong with education in America, and what might be done to fix it. What’s wrong is that teachers' unions and career bureaucrats block reform because it gets in the way of their real mission: to protect jobs and money. The answer, at least the only one offered by Guggenheim, is more charter schools.
There isn’t much groundbreaking in the documentary. People get interviewed, including the president of the American Federation of Teachers, who comes off about as horribly as anyone in the film. You feel like she is almost single-handedly blocking real education reform. She’s not, she’s only one person, and her overall horribleness isn’t the whole problem. There’s the head of the L.A. school district teacher’s union, who also seems like a pretty awful guy in blocking real reform in the name of money and power for adults. It’s kinda sickening.
Getting you to feel sick about education and using cute animations to explain how schools fail the kids are two things Guggenheim does well in his film. He also, slowly but surely, sets up a true tension-filled ending as five kids attend lotteries to see if they will get out of the teacher union/bureaucrat-filled drop-out factories that are their local public system and into charter schools where real innovation is happening. It’s heartbreaking to see what happens to some of the kids as 700 people apply for 35 slots in a charter school. It brings drama like the type seen in good documentaries such as Spellbound, The King of Kong, and Hoop Dreams. This is where the “life isn’t fair” part comes in.
Guggenheim has half a good idea here. It’s not really going to stir anyone, politician or otherwise, to action, as it says on the back of the Blu-ray case, since everyone knows there are problems in public schools, and anyone with an interest in making it better is already trying. He does show, graphically, that any effort to make positive changes will be met with resistance by grown-ups who make money off the current system and don’t want to see any of their power or money slipping away. I think a whole movie with Guggenheim interviewing teachers' union big wigs would do more for the charter school system than anything else.
We do care about the families and their education struggles portrayed, and that makes it an interesting, if not particularly effective, documentary. You already know some schools stink, right? So, what are you going to do? What can you do? Guggenheim seems to say, “More charter schools and be lucky come lottery time.” He does it in marginally interesting way, and if you hate teachers' unions, you’ll get some grim satisfaction at how badly they come off. Other than that, it’s a documentary telling you what you already know.
The best thing about the Waiting for Superman Blu-ray is that it comes with a $25 gift card you can donate to your local school. What a great idea! The school gets something and it doesn’t cost you anything. I wish more home entertainment products came with something like this. I’m not sure why they would, but it would be nice, wouldn’t it? Makes me want to sing “We are the World” or something.
Once you get past the gift card for your school, the rest of the extras are pretty pedestrian. Davis Guggenheim and producer Leslie Chilcott provide a commentary where they talk about making the movie and bring out additional points about decisions of whom to use in the film and how much. They also say things like, “Isn’t so and so just an amazing person?” and other things that aren’t particularly interesting but seem inevitable in commentaries. Guggenheim does most of the talking, but it’s not bad. He also has an odd, two-minute animated feature called “A Conversation with Davis Guggenheim,” where an animated version of himself says he had a great teacher and we should all support great teachers. Good point, Davis. Again, very obvious, but certainly a nice sentiment.
There is a five-minute, well, the only word I can use is "commercial," called “Improving the Odds.” It appears to mostly be there to shill for specific charter schools. Since I have kids in charter schools, I’m all for charter schools, but I think this whole “extra” could use a little truth in advertising. It really should be titled “Charter School Ad.” There is also an interesting seven-minute feature on musician John Legend, who did the theme song for the movie. He went home to Cleveland to get inspired to write the song, and hey, he went to school, too!
One feature misleadingly titled “Update” is really two cards about how some of the adults ended up since the movie was shot. You really want to know what happened with the kids, but no such luck. It does send you to a website, so maybe that stuff is available there. Finally, there are 30 minutes of deleted scenes. This is good stuff, as it tells coherent stories that were just too long to include in the already almost two-hour film. It includes a look at a charter school in post-Katrina New Orleans and a guy who took over a horrible L.A. school and was, of course, initially blocked by the teachers' union because they care about the kids.
This isn’t a great documentary or a great Blu-ray, but the message that education is important and you do have some choices is a good one. There is enough drama in the film to make up for the fact that Guggenheim acts like he is telling us something we don’t already know. Plus, if you send your kids to charter school, you’ll feel great.