With­er­ing exam of schools

Los Angeles Times - - Movies - BETSY SHARKEY FILM CRITIC

In “Wait­ing for ‘Su­per­man,’ ” a with­er­ing ex­am­i­na­tion of the coun­try’s pub­lic school sys­tem, doc­u­men­tar­ian Davis Guggen­heim, an Os­car win­ner for his in­ci­sive Al Gore-global warm­ing trea­tise, “An In­con­ve­nient Truth,” proves as po­tent a sto­ry­teller and showman as ac­tivist filmmaker with a se­ri­ous is­sue on his mind.

Much of the film is told com­pellingly and heart­break­ingly through the wide-eyed in­no­cence of five chil­dren. There is An­thony, a Washington, D.C., fifth­grader; Daisy, same grade, 3,000 miles away in East L.A.; Fran­cisco, a Bronx first-grader; Bianca, a Har­lem kinder­gartener; and Emily, a Sil­i­con Val­ley eighth-grader. No chil­dren pro­filed come from the great swatch of the Amer­i­can Heart­land, which nags around the edges of this riv­et­ing por­trait, though the statis­tics of­fered up would sug­gest the prob­lems are as per­va­sive as they are en­trenched. The film is al­ready kick­ing up dust in large part be­cause of what is ar­guably a broadside at­tack on teach­ers unions, and in­deed they do not fare well on the Guggen­heim scale.

The kids cho­sen af­ter a search that was nar­rowed first to 20, then five, are stoic, funny, de­ter­mined, earnest and smart. They all have par­ents or grand­par­ents form­ing a net of emo­tional, if not eco­nomic, sup­port. Though most are liv­ing be­low or near the poverty line, they seem to have ev­ery­thing else go­ing for them — ex­cept for the fail­ing pub­lic schools to which they are as­signed. So dis­arm­ing is this group, it’s easy to un­der­stand why the film won the au­di­ence award at the Sun­dance Film Fes­ti­val, where it pre­miered early this year.

As we meet the stu­dents, they are wrapped up in hopes — theirs and their par­ents — for a bet­ter fu­ture made pos­si­ble by aca­demic ex­cel­lence. Start­ing in late 2008 and for nearly a year, the filmmaker and his team fol­lowed along as the fam­i­lies ap­plied for the spe­cial­ized char­ter or free pri­vate schools in their area. The odds are not good and range from 5% for Fran­cisco to get into the Har­lem Suc­cess Academy to 50% for An­thony to make it into Washington’s SEED Char­ter School. In each case, a lot­tery will de­ter­mine their fate, and for some of the five, it will not be a happy end­ing.

This is a far more con­fi­dent Guggen­heim than we saw in his first swing at ed­u­ca­tion in 2001, as he tracked a hand­ful of new teach­ers in the Pe­abody-win­ning “The First Year.”

But what you can feel still, and what in­creas­ingly in­fuses his work, is the pas­sion­ate way the filmmaker warms to his topic and the ex­cel­lent eye he has in cast­ing his sub­jects. He is clearly look­ing to make con­verts as much as start a con­ver­sa­tion, and while not a provo­ca­teur in the way of Michael Moore, he is no less in­sis­tent that he is right.

Guggen­heim be­gins with a dis­claimer of sorts, that his chil­dren — he and his wife, ac­tress Elis­a­beth Shue, have three, rang­ing in age from 4 to 12 — have the ad­van­tage of at­tend­ing top Los An­ge­le­sarea pri­vate schools, though it feels a bit like lib­eral guilt talk­ing. (At the same time, he dis­tances him­self from lib­eral or­tho­doxy on ed­u­ca­tion in his sear­ing crit­i­cism of the unions.) Re­gard­less, he moves quickly away from the per­sonal and be­gins lay­ing out his case for pub­lic schools as he en­vi­sions they should be, which leans heav­ily to­ward char­ter pro­grams.

To ground his ar­gu­ment, the filmmaker uses a force­ful group of pro­gres­sive ed­u­ca­tors, D.C. pub­lic school Chan­cel­lor Michelle Rhee and KIPP school founders David Levin and Mike Fein­berg among them. But it is the charis­matic Ge­of­frey Canada, who heads the Har­lem Chil­dren’s Zone, a “wrap­around” sys­tem be­gun in 1997 with chil­dren’s ed­u­ca­tional and so­cial needs cov­ered from birth through col­lege, who be­comes the spine of the ar­gu­ment for change. There are no real dis­senters in the bunch, and what we see of the other side is mostly dis­heart­en­ing news footage of Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers Pres­i­dent Randi Wein­garten ar­gu­ing against var­i­ous is­sues, most stri­dently merit sys­tems for eval­u­at­ing teach­ers, long a flash­point in any pub­lic school de­bate. What the ed­u­ca­tors don’t ad­dress — the reams of statis­tics on ed­u­ca­tion, its fail­ures, its suc­cesses, its costs — are supplied by graph­ics so en­gag­ingly high-tech yet sim­ple that they are like pic­ture books for first-graders.

Brick by brick, Guggen­heim tears apart the cur­rent sys­tem, and brick by brick he puts up his ide­al­ized school­house filled with pas­sion­ate teach­ers ready to rap their math lessons or do what­ever it takes for kids to learn. It’s hard not to get caught up in the pos­si­bil­i­ties. Just how right he is, how ac­cu­rate his statis­tics, how suc­cess­ful the in­no­va­tors will be long-term, only time will tell. For Daisy, An­thony, Emily, Fran­cisco, Bianca and the mil­lions of oth­ers who flow through our pub­lic school sys­tem, you hope that if noth­ing else the film will in­vig­o­rate a de­bate that makes schools bet­ter. Mean­while, give Guggen­heim an A for ef­fort.

betsy.sharkey@latimes.com

Lara Porzak

STU­DENT: Daisy, a fifth-grader from East Los An­ge­les, is one of five chil­dren fea­tured in the film.

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