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Waiting for Superman

Paramount // PG // February 15, 2011
List Price: $39.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Ryan Keefer | posted February 10, 2011 | E-mail the Author
The Movie:

From a personal point of view, there are few things in my mind worse than the treatment that America gives to the soldiers that have defended the country. They are treated in sometimes poor environments or are neglected in others. That said, how America approaches its education system is worse in that the effects are more damaging in the longer term and wider reaching, and with the way things are today now, the contortions that some parents have to do to get their children the best possible education should be unnecessary. If the last part is one of the messages Davis Guggenheim is proposing in Waiting For "Superman", then consider me buying in wholeheartedly.

The latest from the Oscar-winning documentarian (An Inconvenient Truth) could almost be considered a follow-up of sorts to his 1999 film The First Year, where he followed several teachers in one South Central Los Angeles school over the course of a year. In Waiting for "Superman", he follows five families on both coasts. The families vary in single or dual parent households and in varying income levels. Each of these households has a child who still hopes, and dreams of being nurses or doctors, or at the very least hoping to improve their families' lives. Consider that when a fifth-grader in Washington D.C. named Anthony, whose father eventually died from drug abuse. He wants to give his children more than he was given, it's both amazing that he would possess such foresight, but also heartbreaking that he has to ponder something like that at his age to begin with. Each household has to take part in a lottery to gain entry into a charter school which (as the film points out) produce better results and more college-ready students than their public school peers.

This is one of many things that Guggenheim presents to the viewer over the course of 111 minutes. Charter schools work away from the bureaucracy and thus would appear to perform well by and large though admittedly Guggenheim points out there are some that do not. When it comes to public school performance, one would seemingly not argue at the lack of positive results in them often trickling up through the pipeline. Ill-equipped elementary school children are passing along to intermediate and high school levels until they graduate without much legitimate college prospects, assuming they even get that far as many drop out during the process. Guggenheim illustrates there are several things that are occurring in the school systems that are impacting this; the conflicting interests between federal and state school funding, the lack of cost-available, productive education, and the teachers' unions that retain deficient members in their workforce without realizing the damage to the children they teach.

To the latter, it's this part that is given a fair amount of time in the film. Educators like Geoffrey Canada (of the Harlem Children's Zone), former District of Columbia school Chancellor Michelle Rhee and former Milwaukee school superintendent Howard Fuller discuss their difficulties in running up against the unions. In particular, the latter discusses witnessing a news report on teachers not doing anything about students playing a game of craps in a classroom, and firing the teachers, only to be forced to hire them back and pay them for the time they were out. In a more recent example not in the film, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie recently asked the unions in his state to take a pay freeze for a year and was told it was the greatest assault on public education in the history of the state (his words), despite the fact their health benefits are apparently free to the teachers. To attempt to try and discharge a teacher for poor performance is an exhaustive process that requires almost two dozen steps, and if it's not done in a compressed period of time, requires the process to start all over again next year. As one who does not live far from Washington D.C., seeing Rhee's battles with the unions over moving towards a merit pay system that eschewed tenure were something I paid attention to, but in watching the film I had a newfound appreciation for. The cost associated with the desire for improved schooling is also touched on, including in one scene where a single mother discusses not being able to come up with money that would allow her daughter to walk the stage for graduation at the elementary level.

When it comes to the stories of the parents and children, they are a mix of touching and heartbreaking moments. In displaying what he believes are the problems with today's school systems and interviewing those who he feels can resolve (or at the very least stop the bleeding on) the problems, Guggenheim puts off the most impactful event for the families until the end, the lottery. And in perhaps unintentionally doing this, the suspense is drawn out without being overdone, and when the end comes, it's, well, what you think it is all along, yet didn't want to see. There is a coda for one of the students and it's worth sticking around for, as is provides its own emotional moments but in a different way.

Above all else, Waiting for "Superman" might be the first to admit the problem will not get solved immediately. But, with some alternatives out there now (along with some supporting results), hopefully it can be agreed that the status quo is patently unacceptable. If there is nothing else taken away from the film hopefully it's that, and those of us who went through the system before make sure that our children get better than we got. If Anthony can understand that, one wonders why we all don't universally say the same thing and do something about it.

The Blu-ray Disc:
The Video:

Presented in 1.85:1 widescreen and in high-definition using the AVC codec, Waiting For "Superman" juggles practically shot film, animated sequences and vintage newsreel and promotional film that appears in full-frame rather well. The image is pristine and when it comes to the film segments, looks natural without color oversaturation. Flesh tones are reproduced accurately and without concern and while there is not a multidimensional look to the backgrounds (or you may be disappointed with a lack of detail), there should be some perspective employed here. It's a documentary, with little time paid to how staged or pretty a shot looks or is going to be. Looks real, is real, solid viewing.

The Sound:

This DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 lossless track isn't called upon to do a lot. It's a dialogue-driven feature with little action in the low-end or rear channels. That said, dialogue sounds natural and consistent in the center channel, requiring little compensation. Along with that, there are some moments of directional activity that can be picked up on in the rear speakers, and the overall soundtrack provides an underlying level of immersion when it has to. It's not a world-beater, just solid listening.


Guggenheim and producer Lesley Chilcott join forces for a commentary on the production. I expected it to be a little more informative than it was, but it was decent nonetheless. Guggenheim recalls how he wanted to approach the film from a storytelling perspective and how his previous films helped him shape the narrative. He talks about the interview subjects and their thoughts of them, and both he and Chilcott talk about the production in general. Each shares their memories of making the film and possible next steps we can take to improve the system. There is a bit of watching the film from them, but it's got just enough to make it listenable.

Next up are four deleted scenes (31:15) which both expand on some people who didn't get enough screen time and show others, like two principals who opened a school in New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina. The deleted scenes are very much worth watching. The making of 'Shine' (7:02) shows us how John Legend put the film's song together and he recounts his time growing up. "The Future is in Our Classrooms" (2:09) would appear to be a trailer of sorts for the film, while "A Conversation with Davis Guggenheim" (1:44) is an animated sequence where the director recounts his influences growing up in school. Text updates for some of the film's interview subjects are next. Lastly, the film comes with a $25 gift card that can be donated to the public school of your choice, "no strings attached." If nothing else, buying this disc so that some good can be done is noble and well worth it.

Final Thoughts:

Waiting For Superman shows us the perils of education in America today and some of the lengths parents take to get their children the best possible experience in schools. To read about parents being taken to court for wanting to do something, the film should serve as an effective call to action for parents, teachers and politicians to really mean what they say and get the best education system possible "for the children." The film reminds us of this rather well. Technically it's solid and there's enough bonus material to make it a keeper (the gift card is good karma in and of itself). A must-see.

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Highly Recommended

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