Walk into the Venice Beach, Calif., hideaway that director Davis Guggenheim shares with his wife, actress Elisabeth Shue, and their three children, ages 12, 9, and 4, and it’s immediately clear who rules the roost. Legos are strewn throughout the family’s modern, tri-level home, and an entire wall has been surrendered to colorful artwork. Even the microwave oven is covered with stickers. Guggenheim, 46, is a bit bleary-eyed at the moment, having been kept awake most of the night by his younger daughter’s nightmares (she’d watched E.T. for the first time while Mom was away in Ottawa shooting a movie). ”It’s outta control, right?” Guggenheim says with a smile, as he kicks a toy away and leads a guest up the stairs.
Guggenheim knows a thing or two about messes — he just spent almost two years making a movie about America’s public schools. The Academy Award-winning director of An Inconvenient Truth has just released a penetrating, moving documentary called Waiting for ”Superman” that introduces viewers to vulnerable kids, to labyrinthine bureaucracies, and to schools in varying states of chaos — some aptly called ”dropout factories.” (Read the EW review) It’s a seat-gripping ride that will leave you frustrated, outraged, and — once it becomes apparent that Superman isn’t going to show up and set everything right — eager to do something about the problem. ”I can’t imagine a more difficult story to tell than this one,” says Guggenheim. ”This kicked my ass.” And that’s coming from the guy who turned Al Gore into a rock star.
What sets Guggenheim’s film apart from the education documentaries that have preceded it are the five kids at the center of the story. They hail from different regions of the country and varying socioeconomic and ethnic groups, but they’ve all banked their futures on a lottery’s bouncing ball that will determine whether they get accepted into charter schools that could change, or even save, their lives. Just try taking your eyes away from the screen as you watch a little fifth grader named Daisy clench her fists while her chances of going to medical school hang in the balance. ”It’s not hard to find a family in America whose kid’s future is at stake,” says Guggenheim. ”There are thousands and thousands of kids like this.”
What you learn in Waiting for ”Superman” is so depressing it’s cathartic: Although the U.S. spends twice as much money per student today as it did 40 years ago, American kids rank 25th in math and 21st in science among 30 developed countries. And thanks to the powerful teachers’ unions, it’s nearly impossible to fire a tenured teacher, even one who sticks a child’s head into a soiled toilet. On the upside, the movie introduces you to many superheroes. There’s Geoffrey Canada, a Harvard-educated reformer who went back to his hometown of New York, took over 97 blocks in Harlem with the highest rates of foster care and unemployment in the city, and with his Harlem Children’s Zone transformed the area into an oasis of learning and hope. Then there’s Michelle Rhee, the chancellor of the Washington, D.C., school system, who takes the gutsy, radical tack of actually firing underperforming principals and teachers.
”Superman” has already inspired two archenemies to come together: Rhee, who recently passed a new teachers’ contract with the union, and Randi Weingarten, the head of the American Federation of Teachers, discussed the issues with Guggenheim after a recent screening. And the film echoes change already occurring across the country, prompted by the White House’s national Race to the Top competition, which is giving $4.35 billion to states demonstrating true reform in their schools. ”I made this movie because if you look at the cause of failure in Los Angeles alone — only 40 percent of our kids are graduating — everyone knows we’re doing a terrible job, yet people on both sides of the issue are fighting about specific policy,” says Guggenheim. ”This movie is about how to get all those people back to the table to fix it.”
One way is to create so much public outrage that policy makers have to respond. That’s where the marketers who sold An Inconvenient Truth to Hummer-driving, red-state Republicans come in. Paramount Pictures and Participant Media are back together using tools they learned from working on that film plus, of all things, Paramount’s 2009 viral horror hit Paranormal Activity to engage moviegoers. You can go online and pledge to see ”Superman” as it opens slowly nationwide over the next several weeks; in return, you’ll be given $5 to donate to schools across the country. ”This is one of those movies where word of mouth is the most powerful thing you can use,” says Megan Colligan, Paramount’s co-president of marketing. ”We want people to feel like they are making a commitment from the start: to seeing the movie, and to getting 10 friends to see it. It’s meant to cause a conversation.” And it deserves to be a loud one.