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Originally published Thursday, September 30, 2010 at 3:00 PM

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Movie review

'Waiting for "Superman" ': Education documentary gets an average grade

A review of Davis Guggenheim's "Waiting for 'Superman.' " As with his earlier, global-warming documentary ("An Inconvenient Truth"), viewers may argue Guggenheim oversimplifies and overstates the problems of public education. But he at least succeeds in asking tough questions.

Seattle Times education reporter

Movie review 2.5 stars

'Waiting for "Superman," ' a documentary by Davis Guggenheim. 111 minutes. Rated PG for some thematic material, mild language and incidental smoking. Several theaters.

The heart of "Waiting for 'Superman,' " a new documentary about public education by the maker of "An Inconvenient Truth," rests on the stories of five students whose families want them to get a great education.

They are earnest young souls — all but one in elementary school — who want to grow up to be doctors, teachers, veterinarians. Their neighborhood public schools are portrayed as mediocre at best, and their families have pinned their hopes on high-performing charter schools their children have only a slim chance of attending.

The film begins with one of those students — a fifth-grader in Washington, D.C., named Anthony — and winds up with the lotteries that will determine whether any of the students get into the schools they desire.

But "Waiting for 'Superman' " also has its didactic side. Woven in with the student stories, director Davis Guggenheim presents statistic after statistic to undergird his assertion that the U.S. school system is failing a lot of kids — even Emily, an eighth-grader who, in the worst case, will attend a suburban high school where average test scores are far from low.

Guggenheim uses colorful graphics and some animation to try to make the data more engaging, even if he wants it to be depressing. And he lays a lot of blame at the feet of teachers unions as villains that protect adults at the expense of kids.

Amid all the gloom and doom, he also features a handful of so-called "reformers" as evidence that things don't have to be so bad.

As with his global-warming documentary, viewers may argue Guggenheim oversimplifies and overstates the problem, and focuses on the wrong solutions.

It is debatable, for example, whether the U.S. ranks as far behind other countries as some tests make it seem. And whether charter schools — which this movie seems to idolize — are better than traditional public schools.

But Guggenheim succeeds in asking tough questions. At the end of the film, after he's made us root for these kids and worry about the state of our schools, he asks: "Did we do the right thing? Did we do enough?"

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or lshaw@seattletimes.com

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