If we examine the grassroots origin of film festivals, we could probably make an argument that they exist to invoke change, or at least bring about some awareness of a certain person, place or thing. Davis Guggenheim's 'Waiting for Superman,' in keeping with his last Oscar-winning film 'An Inconvenient Truth,' brings forth the issue of the American education system in a moving, poignant way. At the Winter Garden Theatre screening of the film at the Toronto Film Festival, it was impossible not to feel the momentum in the air.

'Waiting for Superman' lays out all the facts about the crumbling infrastructure of education in the United States. We follow the lives of several young children who each face different hurdles -- race, money, and geographic location among them -- as they and their parents strive to get them the best education possible. At times, watching this process is literally heartbreaking, especially when the children endure "lotteries" (often against ridiculous odds) to secure spots in schools. Is there anything more ludicrous than putting our child's future in the hands of a bouncing Bingo ball in a cage?



The film is an eyeopener, and, as a Canadian, a warning sign. While our education system is deemed as one of the top-tier systems in the world, we are slipping in the rankings year over year. To see what's happening (and what's happened) in the United States is a definite shocker. To learn that the U.S. federal government has monumentally increased spending for education -- per student -- and test scores across the country have flat-lined with absolutely no growth (and in many cases, are dropping) is both confusing and maddening.

Another fact revealed in the documentary is that teachers, even lousy ones, cannot be fired. That's right -- cannot be fired. So even if your child's teacher sits behind his or her desk all day long reading a magazine, he or she will keep that job, or at most be shuttled off to another school where they can continue to slack off. This is just crazy. Would you want to keep a terrible doctor on staff at a hospital? A crooked lawyer at the firm? Don't think so.

We meet some valiant soldiers in the movie, and most of them were in the theater for the screening. Geoffrey Canada, who also appeared in this year's equally crushing documentary 'The Lottery,' is a social activist and educator, and his booming voice and powerful charisma are leading the way to change the system. Philanthropist and Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates is also involved in 'Waiting for Superman,' both financially and emotionally -- as he spoke in the theater it's obvious he and his wife Linda are very passionate about the issue.

"My wife Melinda and I, when we were deciding what to focus on... it was a no-brainer," Gates said. "Education is the one big thing that will make a difference."

Canada said so many things of note they're impossible to document here, but one statement was right on the money: "It's like playing basketball without keeping score -- we need to monitor and rank our teachers."

Guggenheim, who was inspired to make this film after he dropped his kids off at school and proceeded to drive by school after school that he felt they should attend, has succeeded with 'Waiting for Superman' in an arena where so many others have failed. The modern Hollywood documentary is so filled with questionable tactics that often the issue itself is clouded by spectacle. Guggenheim makes no such mistake. We wake up with the kids, we watch them brush their teeth, we see them struggle to learn. You heard it here: This film will be nominated, and will most likely win, the Best Documentary Oscar in 2011.

Perhaps the best part about 'Waiting for Superman' is it doesn't stop in the theater. You can visit the film's website -- which producer Lesley Chilcott calls "the most comprehensive movie website ever" -- and help the cause yourself. If you have children, this may be the most important thing you do for them. As the film shows, our countries are built and maintained by educated people. Without them, what would we be?

'Waiting for Superman' opens in New York and Los Angeles on Sept. 24, and in Toronto on Oct. 1. It will expand throughout North America in October.

Read Cinematical's review of the film at Sundance