I don't know if the education documentary "Waiting for Superman" will win the Oscar, but it should win some sort of prize for not using the word "outcomes."
Davis Guggenheim's big-buzz doc is an emotionally charged movie that's mercifully free of the education-debate jargon that causes me to lapse into a narcoleptic coma.
Detractors will say "Superman" is also free of important facts. There are no serious counterarguments to the movie's agenda - it's for charters schools and merit pay, it's against easy tenure, and it makes a hard-nosed pitch for expanding the right of school administrators to can lousy teachers.
As he makes these arguments, Guggenheim works outside the constraints of familiar documentary style - grainy, hand-held "verite" images. His movie uses feature-film cinematography to reinforce its theatrical dramatic arc. It makes reformer Michelle Rhee look like Princess Leia, union leader Randi Weingarten look like Darth Vader. (In fact, almost all members of the rebel alliance are charming, charismatic. All opponents are Randi Weingarten.)
Its main means of persuasion, though, is via the use of adorable children. It follows half a dozen (mostly poor) kids, destined for crummy schools, hoping desperately to win long-shot lotteries that will gain them admission to a charter school.
This pins-and-needles lotto narrative is a hallmark of the new wave of pro-charter documentaries, and has featured prominently in "The Lottery," and Bob Bowdon's Jersey-focused "The Cartel."
The tumbling-ball, anxious-child images retain all of their power to break hearts, and if you can walk out of "Superman" without shedding a few grateful tears for the near-orphan kid who ends up in a charter, you're a stronger man than I am.
But can it change minds?
If you look upon the movie as a call to engagement, you'll soon find yourself engaging a monumental data dump piled high with conflicting and confusing information.
"Superman" critics, for instance, want to know why Guggenheim didn't interview charter counterrevolutionary Diane Ravitch, who's against merit pay and tenure-trashing, on the basis that there's no reliable way to tell the good teachers from the bad.
Really? I seemed to have no trouble doing it as a public school student. Yes, I'm talking about you, Mrs. Shaffer. (Note to legal: I didn't specify good or bad).
In any case, the movie may not move the battle lines very far - the sides are too entrenched and opposed. "Waiting for Superman" believes dysfunctional schools create dysfunctional neighborhoods; its detractors believe just the opposite.
"Waiting for Superman," though, does find resonance in its use of vulnerable children. In drama and in documentary, a recurring theme has emerged this year - one selfish generation is failing the next.