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Waiting for Superman

Year: 2010
Production Co: Electric Kinney Films
Studio: Paramount Vantage
Director: Davis Guggenheim
Writer: Davis Guggenheim/Billy Kimball

The emotion that came over me as I sat with the worried looking kids and parents to see if they're getting into the good schools where their only chance is to be picked out of a hat threatened to overwhelm me a little. But I also had to remind myself while I watched the disappointment on those sad little faces that a good portion of those scenes had probably been the subject of some manipulation. Not outright staging, but certainly selective editing to elicit the most drama.

That's not to detract from the power of the idea, or the fact that An Inconvenient Truth director Davis Guggenheim is telling us a deeper story in those final scenes. Watching kids with scared faces find out if they're going to get a decent education based on the method we use for picking lottery winners is a tragedy no matter how many relieved smiles follow when their numbers are called out. It shouldn't be to begin with.

The older I get the more I understand how an even baseline decent education can lift you out of bad circumstances or the cycle of poverty, and for all the creative and military might wrought on the world by Hollywood and The Pentagon, America should hang its head in shame when not winning a lottery condemns you to a terrible school with bad teachers who don’t care and from which you'll probably emerge to a life of crime or premature death.

The title refers to the belief Guggenheim has from a kid – the same one that seems to shape most American moral direction – that a mythical, heroic figure will swoop in and save the day. He does in the movies when the female lead is pretty, usually white and usually not poor – if you're anything but, Guggenheim uses statistics and human faces to show how the US education system will probably leave you behind.

Improving education is never a bad thing but to be fair to detractors (whom I don't happen to agree with), there is a sociological counter argument. You choose your fate, and if you go to a bad school you can still try your hardest and excel if you really want to – spending your life blaming a bad environment is popular but an easy way out of working to prove your worth.

But it's getting harder to get ahead by hard work alone in the Western World where wealth and connections are real educational currency, a point Guggenheim highlights along with some very sobering statistics about the level of basic ability of US school kids.

He follows a well-worn track of applying human faces to tragic statistics, and the result is no less powerful for it. There's good news and lone warriors in the whole mess trying to make a difference, but to paraphrase the conventional wisdom of Wall Street, education systems across the Western world seem too big to succeed.

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