The 2009 documentary, A Race to Nowhere, was the brainchild of movie director/protective parent/concerned citizen, Vicki Abeles. The film contains a powerful combination of “expert” interviews and emotional vignettes to convince viewers of the dangers of putting students under too much scholastic pressure. We meet a high school girl who starves herself to stay up and do homework, ultimately resulting in her admittance to a psychiatric hospital for anorexia. Depression, stomach pains, and headaches are the tip of the iceberg for the students depicted in Race to Nowhere. In the beginning of the film, the director discusses her own children’s struggle with anxiety induced illness. According to the film’s website, “[Race to Nowhere] reveals an education system in which cheating has become commonplace; students have become disengaged; stress-related illness, depression and burnout are rampant; and young people arrive at college and the workplace unprepared and uninspired”. Throughout the film, the audience is shown one tragic case after another to expose the harmful side effects of America’s obsession with achievement and performance.
The film makers of Race to Nowhere pulled out all the stops to ensure that this documentary tugged at the heart strings. Anxious about their future’s dependence upon their academic performance, the desperate students in the film took prescription drugs, starved themselves, and stayed up all night to make the grade. The film portrayed students as victims of the system and framed parents as helpless bystanders. The selected interviews and imagery in the film were incredibly emotional. There were several scenes that showed the poor overworked students in emotional distress.
Ten year old Zachary and his mother were the most difficult for me to watch. In one scene, Zach is sitting at the kitchen table slaving away and obviously stressed. He twirls the pencil through his red curly hair as he tells his mother about the consequences of giving an incorrect response to his homework [00:38:23]. Zachary fearfully warns his mother, “If we forget this mom or if I do a different one, then we are going to get in trouble. Then we lose five minutes of recess.” The way this scene is structured makes taking recess away from a child facing adult-like pressure to perform seem like a crime. The film paints a clear picture of victims and villains.
To go a step farther in the fight against homework, Race to Nowhere had several experts whom stated that homework is detrimental to the long term mental, social, and intellectual success of students. An AP science teacher says that when he cut student’s homework load in half they scored better on the AP test. If that doesn’t move you to ban homework everywhere, watch as an incredibly passionate English teacher cries on camera as she talks about how the pressure of performance is making it impossible for her to teach her students valuable critical thinking skills [00:34:19].
The most critical point of the film was the final scene. In the closing frames, viewers learn that the film is dedicated to young Devon Martin who took her own life, because of a poor math grade. The film closes with her picture and several frames containing advice for everyone from parents to students to teacher to school administrators. This is definitely a call to community action on behalf of children who the films claims are being robbed of their childhoods.
One thing that troubled me was the omission of the driving force behind the culture of competition and achievement. Teachers are not giving ridiculous amounts of homework, because they love grading papers. They are facing the same pressure to perform that their students are facing. A variety of teacher interviews would have made the arguments presented in the film more credible.
If ending homework is the way to improve student’s experiences in education, it would have been nice to hear from the principal in Wyoming that chose to do away with homework altogether. Education reformers are constantly discussing a lack of challenging curriculum for students. In this documentary, we did not hear any thoughts from those responsible for creating school curriculum. No current school administrators were consulted to shed some light on why they feel homework is an important part of school education. I also find it odd that of all the families featured in the film, there was not one that was grateful for the extra time, effort, and attention teachers were putting into creating such challenging coursework. There is obviously some benefit to a rigorous academic curriculum. This documentary only presents information that will garner support for the filmmakers’ mission to change the way student success in education is evaluated.
 “About the Film.” Race to Nowhere:Leveraging the Power of Community to Transform Education. Reel Link Films, n.d. Web. 24 Feb. 2013.
 Race to Nowhere. Dir. Vicki Abeles. Reel Link Films, 2010. Web.