The documentary "The Edge of Success," screening in March as part of the annual Cinequest Film & Creativity Festival in Redwood City and San Jose, takes an intimate look at the stresses faced by Palo Alto teenagers.
For locals, it's an all-too-familiar story. Growing up in Palo Alto, kids are afforded an abundance of opportunities, with highly rated schools and a high-achieving community. While the affluent, innovative Silicon Valley environment offers benefits, by the time they reach high school, many teens are overwhelmed by pressure to meet expectations of academic perfection and "success" in a world dominated by Stanford University and tech giants such as Facebook and Google. Two teen suicide clusters, in 2009-2010 and 2014-2015, made Palo Alto the focus of grim national attention and in the subsequent years, local schools have expanded their mental health efforts.
"The Edge of Success" follows six high schoolers over the course of two school years as they discuss their experiences navigating adolescence following the second suicide cluster. It also includes interviews with their parents, teachers and other community members, such as PAUSD head Ken Dauber, "How to Raise an Adult" author/former Stanford dean/PAUSD parent Julie Lythcott-Haims and Challenge Success founder Denise Pope. But the students' own voices guide the documentary; a conscious choice by the filmmakers, who opted not to narrate the film.
Director/producer Kathryn Basiji is herself a graduate of Gunn and a Palo Alto resident.
"I actually identify with a lot of their experiences. This has always been a place with certain characteristics ... it breeds this culture of success. People have always held themselves to a very high standard," she said.
When she moved back to the area after college, around the time of the first suicide cluster, she felt that while the tragedies were receiving a lot of media attention, she wasn't hearing much from the teen community itself.
"There wasn't a lot of student voice, allowing them to actually influence anything that was being done about it. That was how I got interested in this project, trying to tell the story from the student perspective," she said. She eventually connected with co-director and writer Liza Meak of Redwood City, a documentarian and mother of three daughters, including a current high schooler, who shared her interest in the topic and passion for giving teens a platform.
Basiji and Meak reached out to students, meeting with them for coffee at Philz and gaining their trust as they shared their stories.
"What solidified our relationships with these kids is the idea that we weren't just going to talk to them one time and be done. It wasn't going to be one interview, one snapshot of who they are at one given moment," Meak said. "We really were going to follow them for two years. They liked and appreciated that opportunity."
In the film, students describe the scorn they are faced with if they don't sign up for enough AP classes or show sufficient interest in top-tier colleges, and the shame they feel when they struggle with anxiety and depression, desperately hoping not to disappoint their parents or crack the veneer of "perfection" they maintain.
"It's hard to feel like what you're doing is adequate or enough because everyone around you is doing so much more," one student states.
Over the course of the film, though, they also gain insights, form bonds and open up about their mental health. The documentary also explores some of the attempts at improving the socioemotional environment at Gunn, including the addition of a popular class on positive psychology.
"Everyone wants these kids to feel emotionally OK, to feel safe and respected and acknowledged ... the school district is doing a great job making these resources available," Meak said. "I think it becomes a much more safe space to be able to open up and talk about things."
Meak said her work on the documentary has had an impact on her own parenting, leading her to back way off on any academic pressure. And while she wasn't surprised about the stresses many students feel, she said she was still surprised by the intensity.
"Hearing them talk about the things they're going through and the pressures and all of these things where you look one way to everyone else but deep down you're feeling a different way was really eye-opening," she said.
While awareness of teen mental health issues is higher than it was a decade ago, there is still more work to be done.
"It's going to take a cultural change in terms of how we view education and what success looks like," Basiji said.
The filmmakers said they're thrilled to screen the film at Cinequest and hope that youth in particular will have the chance to see it.
"I'm like a proud mother hen over these kids," Meak said. "The reason they wanted to be part of the film is they all wanted to make a difference in any way they could for other kids. To make the high school experience a little easier for other people."
"The Edge of Success" screens at Century 20 in Redwood City on Sunday, March 10 at 3:40 p.m. and Sunday, March 17, at 11 a.m. and at the Hammer Theatre in San Jose on Saturday, March 16, at 11:30 a.m. For more information on the film, go to The Edge of Success. Cinequest runs March 5-17. For complete schedule, list and descriptions of films, theater locations and more, go to Cinequest.
Any person who is feeling depressed, troubled or suicidal can call 1-800-784-2433 to speak with a crisis counselor. People in Santa Clara County can call 1-855-278-4204. Spanish speakers can call 1-888-628-9454.
People can reach trained counselors at Crisis Text Line by texting 741741.