YARMOUTH – A screening of the film “Race to Nowhere” drew applause and questions from an audience of nearly 500 at Yarmouth High School on Wednesday night.
The film documents the “silent epidemic” of students across the United States who start building resumes as early as elementary school, struggle and sometimes cheat to keep up with demanding class schedules and homework, and often fall victim to anxiety and stress-related illnesses.
Described as a “grassroots sensation,” the film has been screened more than 1,800 times in recent months at schools, churches, community centers and small theaters across the country. Groups in Cape Elizabeth, Falmouth, Cumberland, Freeport and Brunswick also have shown the film.
“How do we get started?” one woman asked during a panel discussion that followed the 85-minute film.
“It’s about taking small steps,” answered Yarmouth High Principal Ted Hall, who co-hosted the screening with John Drisko, assistant head of school at North Yarmouth Academy. Also at the screening and interviewed in the film was Brad Choyt, head of the Blue School in New York City. He is also incoming head of North Yarmouth Acadmy.
More than 600,000 people have seen the film since screenings began last September, according to film spokesman Josh Baran.
Most screenings attract 300 to 400 people, with larger venues in Santa Barbara, Calif., and Chicago attracting 2,000 and 1,400 people, respectively. Groups pay $750 to screen the film or sell tickets online.
“We’ve sort of lost track of how many people have seen it,” Baran said. “The film has become a centerpiece of a much bigger movement. It’s much more interesting than it would have been if it had gone into (commercial) theaters. The power of the film lies in people coming to see it.”
“Race to Nowhere” features and is the work of Vicki Abeles, a first-time filmmaker and former Wall Street lawyer who was motivated by her concern for her own three children.
“I saw the strain in my children as they navigated days filled with school, homework, tutoring and extracurricular activities,” Abeles wrote in a letter posted on the film’s website, racetonowhere.com. “But it wasn’t until the crisis of my 12-year-old daughter being diagnosed with a stress-induced illness that I was determined to do something.”
Abeles said she tried to make some changes in her home, but the pressures on her family felt beyond her control, driven by today’s high-stakes culture.
In trying to understand those pressures, Abeles spoke with experts, students, parents and educators across the country and filmed her experiences.
The film shows young people “who have been pushed to the brink, educators who are burned out and worried that students aren’t developing the skills they need, and parents who are trying to do what’s best for their kids,” according to the film’s website.
Students in the film said the central goals for many kids today are to get a great job, make lots of money and buy a big house, without regard for what really makes them happy.
The film notes a shift toward teaching to tests and pressuring kids to succeed following the 1983 publication of “A Nation at Risk,” a critical report on the U.S. educational system, and the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.
The film is billed as “a call to mobilize families, educators and policy makers to challenge current assumptions on how to best prepare the youth of America to become healthy, bright, contributing and leading citizens.”
Students involved in the panel discussion that followed Wednesday’s screening agreed that it can be challenging to balance the demands facing many young people.
“It’s a lot to think about … when you don’t know what you’re going to do with your life,” said Robert Field, a junior at North Yarmouth Academy.
“There are all these things that you’re expected to excel at,” said Ben McNaboe, a Yarmouth High School senior. He said students must make healthy choices for themselves, regardless of the pressure they feel from parents or peers.
Amy Ford, a Yarmouth parent, said she thought the film was good but not great.
“I think it takes a bit of a machine-gun approach,” said Ford, whose two sons attend North Yarmouth Academy and Breakwater School in Portland. “Their schools seem to have figured it out. My boys don’t stay up late doing homework. They’re in bed by 10.”
Her husband, Whit Ford, said parents must encourage children to set reasonable expectations, pursue interests they feel passionate about and attend colleges that are a good fit, regardless of where they fall on the list of best schools.
“In the end, wouldn’t we all be better off if people were supported in pursuing their passions?” Ford said.
Gina and Noel Rollins said they moved to Yarmouth from the West Coast because they wanted to live in New England, did some research and were attracted by the town’s reputable public schools.
And still they hope to avoid the pitfalls outlined in “Race to Nowhere.”
“It’s about balancing life and family and love,” Noel Rollins said.
Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at: