Directed by: Davis Guggenheim
Premise: A documentary about the American educational system, following several students at failing public schools and their attempts to escape to private schools through a lottery system.
What Works: Waiting for Superman is an extraordinary piece of documentary filmmaking. Portraying institutional failure is a very difficult thing to do because it does not lend itself easily to the kinds of concrete personal conflicts in which most stories frame their plots. But Waiting for Superman manages to provide a layered and complex yet perfectly understandable portrayal of the educational system. The film points a number of fingers at a variety of targets such as the teacher’s union, governmental bureaucracy, and student home life, assigning each some degree of responsibility for the failure of American schools. It also includes a variety of voices from teachers, parents, and administrators and each share their frustrations with each other and with the system as a whole. As a piece of argumentation, the film nicely balances between emotional and logical appeals and uses them appropriately. The film reasons its way through complex issues without dumbing them down and the picture relies on emotions in a responsible way, avoiding sentimentality for its own sake while also showing the human cost of a failed education.
What Doesn’t: The voices that are missing from Waiting for Superman are those of current students. Although it follows three students and asks them some questions, a deeper interrogation of student life and youth culture might have revealed additional angles to this topic. That said, Waiting for Superman is dealing with those actually running the institution of education and their ideas, triumphs, and failure are of highest importance to the scope of this film.
Bottom Line: Waiting for Superman is an important film both as piece of political activism and as a document of a particular time period. Beyond the immediate drama of the stories of its subjects, this is an essential argument about who we are as a country and where we may be going.
Episode: #315 (November 14, 2010)