"Waiting for Superman," the popular documentary about America's public schools, has put the system's failings in the national spotlight.

The movie features five children and their parents -- including a middle-class family from Redwood City -- who have applied to independently run public charter schools in search of an education they don't think their neighborhood school will afford them.

But their dream schools have far more applicants than seats, and each family must enter an admissions lottery. The lottery drawing is the climax of the film.

The film's director is Davis Guggenheim, who also made "An Inconvenient Truth," the Academy Award-winning 2006 film about climate change that featured former Vice President Al Gore.

Just as Guggenheim's previous documentary raised concerns about the environment, his latest production has brought attention to the inequities facing America's schoolchildren.

Politicians, celebrities and candidates have championed the cause. Meg Whitman, the Republican candidate for California governor, is running a radio ad encouraging people to see it, and Don Perata, the Democratic former state Senate leader who's running for Oakland mayor, spoke briefly at an invitation-only screening in Oakland on Wednesday night.

The question is whether the documentary will bring together education's entrenched factions -- the so-called "reformers" on one side and the teachers unions and their supporters on the other -- or drive them further apart.

"I think the national conversation is going to be in isolated pockets of mostly like-minded people," said David Orphal, a teacher and union representative at Oakland's Skyline High School.

Many of the solutions presented in "Superman" echo the Obama administration's ideas for improving schools, such as linking teacher pay and evaluations to student performance. The film does not flatter central office bureaucracies or unions, saying the institutions are set up to benefit grown-ups, not children.

Arun Ramanathan, who directs the advocacy group Education Trust-West, said he hoped the national focus on education and the importance of good teaching will help bring an end to the notorious "dance of the lemons," or the shuffling of bad teachers from school to school, which is depicted in an animated cartoon.

"The way that our current system functions, from a human capital perspective, is insane," Ramanathan said.

Others fear that by zeroing in on flash points between education's warring camps, such as charter schools and unions, the film might further hinder progress.

"I have this love-hate relationship with 'Waiting for Superman,'" said Judith Warren-Little, dean of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Education. "On one hand, I think it really is propelling a public conversation. On the other, I think it puts us on the wrong ground in the debate."

A small group of teachers picketed a screening at Oakland's Piedmont Theater, distributing fliers defending unions and tenure rights and making the case against charter schools and standardized tests. The flier said the film threatened to lead the conversation "dangerously astray from real solutions to real problems."

Orphal said he thinks teachers should use the moment as an opportunity to help shape the way forward. Teachers need to become actively, "offensively," involved in the school reform -- a movement that's been led, primarily, by non-teachers -- by offering their own solutions, he said.

Otherwise, he said, "We end up looking like we're defending a status quo that's indefensible."

Meiko Scott, a credentialed teacher who was laid off in 2008, said the documentary resonated with her experiences as an educator and as a parent. She said many of her former classmates at Cal State East Bay's School of Education have lost their jobs because of budget cuts and seniority rules favoring more experienced teachers.

Scott's daughter Kamari, now 12, attended private school when they lived in Oakland. When the family moved to Dublin, she said, they thought the public schools would be better. Kamari lasted four days at a public middle school. Her private school in Berkeley, Ecole Bilingue, has smaller classes, and the teachers have more time to work with individual students, she said.

Scott said Kamari was full of questions during the car ride home from the "Superman" screening, especially after seeing what happened to one little girl whose mother could no longer afford her tuition.

"She said, 'Mom, what if you couldn't pay my tuition? Am I not going to be able to graduate?'"

After the screening, Oakland Schools Superintendent Tony Smith addressed the moviegoers.

"This movie, it doesn't tell the whole picture," he said. "And yet we know that every day there are people suffering this bad and worse because they don't have access to a high-quality education."

Smith encouraged the audience to volunteer, to read the district's strategic plan and to join one of its task forces. He said the conversation has to move beyond "the administration versus unions," or "this school versus that school."

Referring to the lonely space between the two most vocal sides of the education debate, he said, "I'm committed to the radical middle."