Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Video review: "The Lottery"

The issue of charter schools has moved back and forth from front to back burners on the crucible of modern American politics, and the new documentary "The Lottery" by 27-year-old director Madeleine Sackler is bound to crank the heat back up.

This decidedly opinionated but undeniably illuminating film looks at the case of the Harlem Success Academy, a series of schools that is succeeding in educating children in one of New York City's toughest neighborhoods. The title comes from the annual lottery held to determine which new students will be admitted. For 2009, there were 3,000 applicants for 475 slots.

Getting into the school or not can literally mean the difference between success or failure in a child's education, and Sackler puts a very human face on this dilemma by following four young applicants and their families in the months leading up to the lottery.

All their stories are wrenching, but particularly moving is the plight of Gregory Goodwire Jr., whose father is serving a life sentence in prison.

"The Lottery" also takes a broader look at the clash between charter school advocates and teachers unions -- in particular, an effort by the Academy to take over space from a public school that is being shuttered. Even though, as Harlem Success founder Eva Moskowitz notes, that PS194 had been designated a failing school since she was a child herself, nothing has changed.

As is often the case with political docs, "The Lottery" is ill-served by having fingers on the scale in its effort to present a balanced portrayal. Sackler's pro-charter leanings are made clear in the occasionally cartoonish way union backers are presented.

It would also have been helpful if some of the bucketful of frightening statistics thrown around -- such as 58 percent of New York's African-American fourth graders being functionally illiterate -- had been balanced with recent findings that charter schools on average perform no better than public ones.

Still, this documentary is a powerful look at the debate over how this nation educates its children.

I should note that Davis Guggenheim, who won an Oscar for his documentary "An Inconvenient Truth," has his own film coming out on this same subject, "Waiting for Superman."

DVD extras are a bit skimpy. There's a Q&A with Sackler, Moskowitz and others from a film festival, and four "deleted scenes" that are actually more like teaser trailers. Plus, links to press coverage the film has received.

Movie: 3.5 stars out of four
Extras: 2.5 stars

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