“The Race to Nowhere” Review

Vicki Abeles, the director of The Race to Nowhere, is a concerned mother of three in Mill Valley, California, a small, affluent town and, apparently, a hotbed of what Abeles calls “achievement culture.” “Achievement culture” is loosely defined as all the ills facing kids today – No Child Left Behind, too much homework, the rising cost of higher education coupled with declining admissions rates. It is a moving, empathetic portrait of Generation Overscheduled, but the film, like its subject, is frenzied and overwrought. And while Abeles’ personal, maternal touch makes for a likeable and relatable narration, the political is a bit too overshadowed by the personal – her youngest son’s stress headaches are regarded with equal weight as problems with America’s educational philosophy.

The Race to Nowhere makes some interesting points. The film argues that students today are taught to be good test-takers and, as a result, lack the critical thinking and analytic skills of previous generations. At California State University, 60% of incoming freshmen – who had to maintain a B-average in high school to gain admittance – are not prepared for college-level courses in English or math.

There are students in the film who, buckling under the pressure, cheat or drop out. One high school student checks into a stress center for two weeks; another is kicked out of school because of an eating disorder. There’s a horrible story about a middle school girl who failed a math quiz and committed suicide the following weekend. The link between these incidents is unconvincing at best and manipulative at worst. (There’s no mention, oddly, of the social pressures of adolescence.)

“The Race to Nowhere” has earned $6.3 million at the box office since its release and ranks 20th among the most successful documentaries ever. The film, which had a limited, weeklong theatrical release, is a grassroots phenomenon, with packed screenings in high schools, churches, offices, and PTA meetings across the country. (Its been screened twice for concerned fathers at Pixar’s offices in Silicon Valley.) The Race to Nowhere is a testament to newer distribution models, attempted for many years by firms like Working Films or Good Film and shows that while Abeles made the film for personal reasons, she had a rapt audience waiting.

Jessica Weisberg is a writer currently living in Chicago. Her writing has appeared in The Nation, n+1, AlterNet, The American Prospect, and newyorker.com, among other publications. She worked as a fa ...read more

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