Once upon a time kids got to hang out, play, do nothing in particular. Increasingly there's been an outcry against how structured — and future-focused — the lives of America's college-bound students have become. As "Race to Nowhere" demonstrates, the intense pressures they face, sometimes before they've reached the double-digit age bracket, continue to take their toll: rampant cheating, sleep deprivation, anorexia, depression, anxiety, self-mutilation, suicide.
Collecting the testimony of those who have been through the stress machine and those who have observed it firsthand, the documentary is a dire warning and solid piece of advocacy journalism, complete with an action checklist at film's end.
Filmmaker Vicki Abeles (who directs with Jessica Congdon) explores the culture of high achievement within her own family, her Bay Area community and around the country. Raised to believe in the necessity and value of hard work, she watched her children implode under the weight of extracurricular demands and as many as six hours of nightly homework.
Interviews with students at both private and public schools, as well as parents, teachers, academicians and authors, uncover a market-driven conformity; one passionate teacher uses the word "roboticize" to describe the educational process. High school is preparation not for college — once through the gates, many Ivy League entrants need to take remedial courses — but for the all-important college application.
As films of this type must do, "Race to Nowhere" offers hope in the form of new models. For starters, there's the no-homework movement. Imagine.
— Sheri Linden
"Race to Nowhere." MPAA rating: PG-13. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes. At Laemmle's Sunset 5, West Hollywood.