Davis Guggenheim's call-to-arms documentary on the failures of the U.S. public-education system—thoroughly laudable in intention if maddening in its logic and omissions—originated with his own guilty conscience. As he drives his children past crumbling public schools to an expensive private one, Guggenheim, an Academy Award winner for 2006's An Inconvenient Truth, admits, "I'm lucky—I have a choice," then asks an important question: What is our responsibility to other people's children? Maybe, for starters, demanding a stronger social safety net. But macroeconomic responses to his query go unaddressed in Waiting for Superman, which points out the vast disparity in resources for inner-city versus suburban schools only to ignore them. Instead, Guggenheim comes up with a proposal that no one could object to: We need better teachers (but, he argues, fewer teachers' unions). The film's heroes are the reformers who support charter schools—which rely on lotteries, a highly arbitrary system. (Also look for Bill Gates lauding charter schools.) But it is precisely these acts of sheer chance that Guggenheim spends too much time documenting, tracking five bright, adorable children hoping to get into charters. To film their agony as they wait to hear their names called doesn't really advance Guggenheim's arguments so much as work against them—and provide borderline exploitative melodrama. Will heartbreaking scenes like this drive an audience to action? Following the final credit exhortations, we're told we can text "POSSIBLE" to 77177. For a crisis so dire, this comes across as absurdly glib.
Yes, Gates is a fan of charter schools.
Opens at Neptune and other theaters, Fri., Oct. 1. Rated PG. 111 minutes.