Davis Guggenheim's new documentary about the stunning failure of the U.S. public-education system, "Waiting for Superman," offers something that most minor-key-soundtrack "problem" movies don't: a solution.
Guggenheim -- yes, a scion of that family -- won a Best Documentary Oscar for "An Inconvenient Truth" -- the movie that you may remember for merely kick-starting a nationwide Green Movement. For sure, the man knows how to make a sad, real-life story compelling, how to break down complex issues, and how to engage an audience in the plight of its characters.
The subjects of "Superman" will nearly break your heart. Four bright, underprivileged kids from failing urban public-school systems around the country (and a token well-off girl from Northern California) and their beleaguered families work multiple jobs, sacrifice, spend time tutoring their children at home, and, yet, their hope for their kids' futures ultimately lies in the fickle hand of fate: They all enter lotteries for charter schools, and the odds are definitely not in their favor.
Though many critics inside the education system have decried "Superman" as too pat in its solution to the fact that, for example, in Washington D.C., only 12 percent of public-school students are proficient in math when they enter high school, Guggenheim is bold in his call for reform. He quotes such convincing folks as Bill Gates (who has to look outside of this country for employees skilled enough in math and science to staff Microsoft) and Geoffrey Canada, a man who seems to have solved the decades-long, intractable problem of poor kids getting lousy educations in this country.
A quote by Canada, an African-American educator, informed the title of the film. Canada explained that, growing up poor in the South Bronx, he cried bitterly when his mother first told him that Superman wasn't real; he says, "I knew then that there was no one coming with enough power to save us" from the poverty and danger of their neighborhood.
Guggenheim, who narrates the film, opens the story by telling how he guiltily drives past three public schools to take his children (with wife Elisabeth Shue) to a private one. Hopefully, sometime in the not-too-distant future, public schools will be good enough for people who can afford to not send their kids there.