A few film journalists have noted recently that, despite their reputations as financially lucrative and zeitgeist-y documentarians, Davis Guggenheim and Michael Moore make very different documentaries: the former cedes the floor to his subjects (whether they be Al Gore, Jack White, or a quintet of underprivileged schoolchildren), while the latter makes damn well sure that we’re aware of his half-prankster, half-bleeding-heart presence. But as Waiting for Superman shows, Guggenheim hews closely to Moore’s emotionally charged aesthetics and people-powered message. And despite his lack of on-screen presence, Guggenheim’s voiceover throughout his newest documentary makes it clear that Waiting for Superman comes from his own perspective, that of a middle-to-upper-class white liberal whose nominal belief in the public education system is belied everyday by the three public schools he passes en route to dropping off his own children at a local private school. He may not be ambushing superintendents in the parking lot while wearing a baseball cap, but Guggenheim wants you to know that he has an education problem, and that you should too.
Luckily, Waiting for Superman mostly eschews plight-of-the-modern-progressive teeth-gnashing and keeps the focus mainly on the kids, all save one from lower-income urban neighborhoods and attending schools that are either failing them or cannot offer their parents the financial support to keep them enrolled. Their stories are heartrending, if not surprising. Daisy dreams of being a doctor, but statistics are against the precocious fifth grader: Six out of 10 students don’t graduate high school in her East L.A. neighborhood. Anthony, a Washington D.C. fifth grader who moved in with his grandparents after his father overdosed, likes to learn but will soon graduate to a middle school where students on average fall two to three grades behind. (In a particularly poignant scene, Anthony says that he hopes education will provide a way out of his neighborhood and greater opportunities for his children; when Guggenheim points out his surprise in hearing a fifth grader talk about plans for his children, Anthony gives him a why-not shrug.) Guggenheim proves particularly adept at juxtaposing the individual quirks and dreams of his subjects against the cold wall of statistical evidence—much of it presented in clear if too-cutesy illustrated graphics—that they and their parents run up against.
It gives cursory nods to such systemic issues as poverty and crime, but Waiting for Superman saves most of its criticism for dysfunctional teachers, or at least the unions that keep them from being replaced by more passionate individuals with innovative ideas. While Guggenheim briefly acknowledges the historical abuses against teachers that led to the formation of unions, he’s fairly unapologetic in how he views their current incarnation, which he presents as intractable, single-minded, and not open to any proposals that defy such hard-fought rights as teacher tenure and school-day length. In a particularly Moore-ish touch, Guggenheim even finds himself a quasi-boogeywoman in Randi Weingarten, the current president of the American Federation of Teachers, who the film treats as the definition of a bottom-line union bureaucrat. Certainly, some of the facts Guggenheim presents are positively blood-boiling, particularly stories of New York’s infamous “rubber rooms,” where delinquent teachers are held with full pay and benefits as they await termination hearings.
Still, the unions’ representation is debatable, and whether one views the film as presently unvarnished realities or ignoring key factors will certainly be influenced by one’s personal experiences and ideological persuasion. What’s more telling is how few members of the teachers’ unions we actually hear from. Weingarten gets to say her piece before Guggenheim’s camera, but the vast majority of members are only seen in union-meeting footage, yelling and waving signs. Certainly, such images succinctly put forth the groupthink mentality that seems to characterize the unions’ inertia on so many issues. Indeed, perhaps the film’s most stinging criticism boils down to what Washington D.C. school chancellor Michelle Rhee characterizes as adult politics overtaking the needs of the children they claim to serve. Even still, one questions whether the lack of union-teacher voices constitutes a blind eye or a purposeful elision.
It gets at the deeper issue that plagues Waiting for Superman; namely, a romanticization and/or condemnation of teachers’ actions without an analysis of what, exactly, makes a “good” and “bad” teacher. If Weingarten ends up being the film’s de facto antagonist, then its heroes are people like Geoffrey Canada, head of the Harlem Success Academy, a charter school that covers some of the most economically depressed areas in New York. He’s an undeniably charismatic and passionate presence, and his candor is matched only by interviews with Rhee, whom Guggenheim frames as a straight-shooting reformer who runs up against an impenetrable wall of union-backed resistance. But while the film offers a generalized view of how they view school reform, it would have been nice to see them or their staff at work within the classroom, detailing the day-by-day actions that result in better teaching. For a film that espouses a belief in the methods of such creative charter schools as Canada’s organization or KIPP LA PREP in Los Angeles, Waiting for Superman could have delved further into their mechanics and history, giving us a sense of how their methods work and whether they can be replicated elsewhere.
Indeed, if there is one thing that Guggenheim seems painfully aware of throughout Waiting for Superman, it is how heartbreakingly limited these charter schools are in terms of the number of children they can take. All five children Guggenheim follows end up applying to these extremely selective schools, and he structures the film’s climax around whether any of them will defy the odds and actually get in via random lotteries (sample state: KIPP LA PREP chooses 10 students from 135 applicants). The suspense that he creates, however, feels less like audience goosing than a sorrowful acknowledgment of how limited these children’s options really are. Waiting for Superman lacks the depth of detail to register as a way forward for public education reform. But in those moments when Guggenheim sets his gaze upon the children whose lives rest so much on fate (of skin color, of economic status, of whether their number is called in a lottery), its galvanizing power is undeniable.