Race to Nowhere Movie Poster Image

Race to Nowhere



Compelling docu looks at academic pressures faced by teens.
  • Rated: PG-13
  • Genre: Documentary
  • Release Year: 2010
  • Running Time: 85 minutes

What parents need to know

Positive messages

The documentary offers a frank look at the heavy pressures high school students face to succeed at school -- and how that strain is increasing and trickling down to younger and younger kids.

Positive role models

Although the kids shown here all seem like average students trying their best to get good grades and earn college acceptances, the pressures they face are so strong that some turn to cheating or display various types of adverse reactions, including depression and eating disorders.

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Signage for a few well-known test-prep centers, including Kumon and Sylvan.

Drinking, drugs, & smoking
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Parents Need to Know

Parents need to know that this documentary about the educational system -- like Waiting for "Superman" -- examines a subject that may hit very close to home: Is our culture placing too much pressure on young people to be uber-successful, pushing them to the edge of exhaustion or worse? The question is difficult because it forces us to examine our own preconceptions about parenting and education. Nevertheless, this is a worthwhile watch for both parents and older kids and could launch great family discussions about expectations and school pressure.

What's the story?

Are our high schoolers overstressed and overtaxed? In RACE TO NOWHERE, filmmakers Vicki Abeles and Jessica Congdon speak to educators, parents, tweens, and teens about the pressures they face academically and emotionally, and the physical toll these expectations exact. What results is a picture of a fractured educational system that pushes kids to become successful -- but at a cost.

Is it any good?


If feeling queasy because of what you’ve watched is a measure of how good a documentary is, then Race to Nowhere definitely succeeds. If you have a high-schooler, the film will either have you second-guessing their academic and extracurricular load or patting yourself on the back if you’ve been careful about making sure that they’re not overwhelmed. The film will certainly stir up loads of examination and debate, and rightfully so. Told in classic documentary style, it's pretty effective.

Still, there are some quibbles: Though East Coasters and Floridians are included in the mix of sources, the film is peopled heavily by Californians. Which would be fine, except the movie is questioning the nation’s obsession with academic success; a more varied sample might have made a better case. And it’s not clear whether the problems described in the movie are endemic in both public and private schools, and whether that makes a difference. Still, it’s a compelling film that will leave both teens and parents of high school students thinking.

Families can talk about...

  • Families can talk about what high school and college have become in this country. Is it really a “race to nowhere"? Why?

  • What is this movie trying to say about the current state of education? Can the damage be undone? What resources do educators need to do their jobs more effectively?

  • Does this documentary approach its subject matter objectively, or does it have an opinion? Is it OK for a documentary to take a specific stance on the topic it's covering?

Movie details

Theatrical release date:September 10, 2010
DVD/Streaming release date:July 19, 2011
Directors:Jessica Congdon, Vicki Abeles
Studio:Reel Link Films
Run time:85 minutes
MPAA rating:PG-13
MPAA explanation:thematic material involving stress on adolescents

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Parent of a 17 year old Written byBiJay March 12, 2011

Shame -- what a terrible movie to show to a sensitive teenager.

Teenagers are very sensitive and can easily be influenced, positively or negatively. They hear what they want to hear. This dejected movie tells them, at least for the first 20 or so minutes, don't do homework, don’t fall into parents pressure, don't take any after school activity, or don't drive to be the best! Tells the teachers: don't give homework, don't push them to learn, or don't ask the teens to do anything. The movie tells the parents: don't pressure your children to do their best, don't help them to pursue their dreams, and don't ask them to do anything. What should they do then? It is left to the viewer. Right from the beginning, it is obvious that the amateur filmmaker Vicki Abeles, has been depressed, has had problems with her family, especially with medical and emotional problems of her own three children, and has been under the impression that the suicide of a teenager is related to school. The first time movie maker claims that she is exploring the culture of high achievement within her own family, her Bay Area community and around the country. The one sided interviews with selected students, parents, teachers and academicians in a selected area (only four cities) points out the negatives of our educational process. And that is a shame. But, certainly this is not her intention. The stated goal of the film is "to foster dialogue." What she wants to stress is the issues, problems, and test-centered education as a result of the no-child-left-behind idea. Then, if this is the case, why she does not point to the fact that these are the issues that the parents, teachers, and politicians need to be aware of and start to initiate a dialogue for change. Why the issue of homework is over emphasized? And why the movie, through repeated interviews with selected individuals claims that everything which goes wrong with teenagers, has to do with the pressure of overachievers. Is the suicide of a 13-year old student associated with a failing grade in a course? Couldn't it be related to the fact that she had been depressed for a while, but her parents did not realize it to get professional help? Couldn't it be related to the fact that any teenager can go through a critical period during the adolescence, but the teachers and parents need to be opening their eyes? And finally, why the title of the movie is "Race to Nowhere", rather than being "Issues, Pay Attention?" Race to nowhere implies to the teenagers that there is no future, why bother. Probably the intention of first time movie maker is to depict the issues that teenagers are facing, the problem with our educational systems or the need for change. Unfortunately, certain critical issues have been negatively overemphasized. How can a coach teach someone to play basketball? Certainly, not by recommending to sit on a couch and listen; rather, to ask the player to practice, and practice, and practice. What is the point of repeated interview of "homework" is bad? The point is the overdose of anything is bad. Finally, she gets it right; at the end of the movie, she summarizes the main points in a writing form; for example parents should ask children how they feel, reduce performance pressure, or know the signs of childhood depression; educators should evaluate each student on an individual basis, engage students in learning, or recognize the unique talents of each individual. Students should speak to the adults, get plenty of sleep, or do things that they enjoy.
Adult Written byHapHaxion September 7, 2015
Parent Written byqwrtyuiop March 28, 2012

Well-disguised progressive attempt at pushing an agenda

This movie is a very well-disguised progressive attempt at pushing a no homework agenda and encouraging strong school value parents to mellow out and not pressure or push their children to excel. This is to further their agenda to dumb-down our top performing American students who fill the majority of college admission spots, hence leveling the playing field and creating enhanced college opportunities for lower achieving, less motivated and more difficult students. (It is easier to bring down top performers than it is to pull up the poor performers). By bundling together a few isolated incidents of over stressed, suicidal kids and their really concerned parents, this film strives to make the case that all achievement motivated kids are chronically stressed out and you won't even no it because they hide it so well. This film fails to address students from other non-Bay Area locations and does not address the issues of the students from the ‘other’ demographic which make-up the majority of students, especially in California where the film is made. Progressives like to disguise their message, but making it all about helping YOU. How does eliminating homework and encouragement for your child to learn and excel, help your child, really? How will your kids learn math if they don't practice it at home?