Oct. 27 2010 12:00 AM

Public schools are under scrutiny in ’Superman’

In 2006, Davis Guggenheim directed the Oscar-winning documentary “An Inconvenient Truth,” which warned about global warming. Now, Guggenheim has turned his attention to something chilling: the sorry state of America’s public school system.

In “Waiting for Superman” — the film takes its title from a hilariously hokey scene from the 1950s “Superman” TV series in which the Man of Steel swoops down just in time to scoop up an out-of-control school bus that’s about to plunge off a cliff. Guggenheim and producer Lesley Chilcott ambitiously combine scary statistics, enlightening animated sequences, historical data and contemporary personal accounts of families trying to ensure their children get a good education. Whether you agree or not with the filmmakers’ findings — and “Superman” provides plenty of debatable material — the human interest stories are downright heartbreaking.

“We were going back and forth between two kinds of storytelling,” Guggenheim said in an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival last month. “There’s the story of the kids who are trying to find a good school and ending up in a lottery, and the other story we secretly called ‘The Folly of the Parents,’ which was about the adults trying to fix the school systems.”

For youngsters like Daisy, Anthony and Bianca — each of whom lives in an urban neighborhood with poorly performing schools — their only chance at building up a solid academic background may be enrolling in a charter school or a private academy. Unfortunately, these institutions always seem to have more applicants than they do openings. Who gets in (and, the film indicates, who gets left behind) is decided not by an admissions board, but by a lottery.

The plight of the children makes for truly tense drama, especially in the final reel, when the children and their parents must pin their hopes on their lottery ball and hope that the hand of fate will steer them in the right direction. Of course, not everyone gets what he or she wants.

“There were times I wanted to take the camera and throw it against the wall because that (lottery) is so unfair,” Chilcott said. “I’ve seen the movie now hundreds of times, even out of sequence when we were doing the color timing, and I always have to leave during the lottery scenes.”

The movie opens with Guggenheim driving his own children to a private school in their Venice, Calif., neighborhood. He would like to send his kids to public school, but he can’t bring himself to do it.

“Most of my friends would rather send their kids to a great public school,” Guggenheim said. “And I feel like my kids are missing out. You know, they’ve got great teachers and a really great culture at school, but they’re not going to school with their neighbors. And that’s a full experience that they’re not experiencing.”

It’s not just the inner city schools that are floundering, according to the film. Even outwardly sleek, well-funded schools in the cushy suburbs aren’t necessarily giving kids the skills they need to cut it in college. One of the “Superman” subjects is Emily, the daughter of an upper middle-class couple; she works hard, but she needs help with her math scores.

“Emily represents what I call the ‘dirty little secret’ of our film,” Chilcott said. “And that is that the middle-class schools are also not doing well at all internationally. And while they may not be D-minus and F students, like in terms of testing, they’re still not doing well at all.”

Guggenheim anticipated “Superman” would be accused of having a slant, although he said that as a documentary filmmaker he always strives for accuracy.

“You’re always making choices, whether it’s in the music, or the shots you leave in or the shots you take out,” he said. “You can always turn the story in any direction you want — it’s like a dark art.”

The question he says he asks himself when making those decisions: “Is it true in spirit?”