Distributed by Paramount, this documentary about the public education crisis isn't as smart or rigorous as Bob Bowdon's shoestring production The Cartel, which arrived in town earlier this year and quickly vanished. But the new movie is still an admirable exercise in straight talk, especially in its tough assessment of the mediocrity-enforcing teachers' unions. Bowdon used his home state of New Jersey as a microcosm for the nation, exposing the sort of institutional bloat that's turned the U.S. education system into a dysfunctional money pit; Waiting for "Superman" looks at this too, but director Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth) dwells mainly on personalities, hailing a few crusaders (Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children's Zone; Michelle Rhee, chancellor of the D.C. public schools) and following a handful of children as they try to avoid getting sucked under by their failing local schools. Like The Cartel, this concludes with heartrending images of parents and children as they suffer through the lotteries that admit a few lucky new students to charter schools; we could use another 20 films like this.
By J.R. Jones