“A Chance in the World” is more than a success story

Terrell Ransom Jr. in "A Chance in the World"

Terrell Ransom Jr. in “A Chance in the World”

Based on
the true story of a
heartbreaking childhood,
“A Chance in the World”
advocates for
a group of Americans
who are often ignored

Mark Vadik’s Chicago-made film adaption of Steve Pemberton’s memoir about overcoming child abuse and tragedy, A Chance in the World, is more than a success story — it is a call to action for Americans to take on the foster care crisis.

“Communities across America are embracing this underdog of a film in ways I could not have imagined,” says Pemberton, who is also a producer for the movie.

Producer Andy Salmen remarks that there is a “groundswell” around the film.

Steve Pemberton
Steve Pemberton

“It really does shine a light on issues within the foster care system … it needs help,” he says, adding that the film is “giving a portion of the screening proceeds to charity.”

Besides spending the last 15 years in executive leadership roles at Walgreens, Monster, and now Globoforce, Pemberton wrote a memoir that was published in 2012 called A Chance in the World.

A few years later, Chicago actor and filmmaker Tom Bastounes — who Salmen credits as “the head producer and catalyst to getting this film made” — handed horror-film director Mark Vadik a copy of the memoir. Bastounes suggested Vadik (a Northwestern Performance Studies alumnus) should adapt it into a script.

Originally apprehensive, Vadik almost completely devoured the 272-page book in one night and then began writing the script. His relationship with the story didn’t end there. Vadik recalls, “They brought me on to adapt it, originally, and then that turned into directing it.”



Due to the gravity of the abuse that Pemberton experienced in the foster care program, it was essential to Vadik that Pemberton was involved and the film told the truth.

Vadik elaborates that it was “a bit nerve racking” when Pemberton read the script for the first time. He didn’t know that Steve and his wife Tonya were going to read it in front of him when he dropped off the script at their home.

“It’s cruel!” Vadik laughs, but fortunately, they loved it.

According to Vadik, one particularly emotional moment that occurred during production was when Pemberton witnessed the tombstone prop with his birth mother’s name on it.

Mark Vadik

Vadik reflects, “He literally looked at that, and I’ll never forget, he goes ‘oh my gosh’ and I’m like ‘what.’ And he goes ‘you actually spelled her name right.’ And I was like ‘what do you mean?’ And he said, ‘Where she was buried, no one cared enough to spell her name right.’”

“It made me empathize with his parents a lot and the situation that they were in,” adds Vadik.

While Pemberton’s Irish-American mother fought a losing battle against alcoholism, three-year old Steve was taken away from her. His African-American father was shot and killed at age 26.

Despite the heaviness of these topics and the film, Pemberton emphasizes that it is not a sad story… it is a “triumph over inherited tragedy… To me, it is a universal story about family and faith and fortitude, forgiveness.”

While impressively at terms with the trauma in his own life, Pemberton is a tireless advocate for Child welfare and the revitalization of support for the foster care system.

“We’re dealing with an American crisis: over 400,000 children in foster care … over 25,000 a year will age out of the system… and invariably they become a part of another government system,” reasons Pemberton.

He further elaborates that the biggest goal of the film is to convince people to “do these small things and these big things that can impact lives.”

Those “big things” include major life choices, such as adoption, becoming foster parents, or becoming a Court Appointed Special Advocate.

Andy Salmen
Andy Salmen

“Small things” consist of donating to or volunteering at organizations like the Boys & Girls Clubs of America and UCAN Chicago, along with donating books to organizations such as Bernie’s Book Bank.

Book donations are especially significant to Pemberton. He reflects that books “gave me a vision for a different life … and so I saw a very different world than the one I was living in, I saw love, and I saw intact families, and I saw support, and I saw fighting.”

Pemberton’s foster parents (played by Kelly Owens and Lawrence-Hilton Jacobs) sensed this and created House Rule #12 that penalized reading. However, Pemberton laughs that this act only emboldened him and sparked further interest in the power of stories.

His knowledge of literature also eventually connected him to his high school teacher John Sykes (played by Tom Sizemore) who would eventually become Pemberton’s guardian and “Grandpa John” to Pemberton’s three children.

Pemberton adds that the film demonstrates that “despite it all, there is always goodness in our world and we just have to find it. All is not lost… You can expand the definition of family.”

A Chance in the World is a bold film that shifts the focus from blame to healing and from disenchantment to engagement.

The film can be viewed and engaged at over 800 theaters throughout the United States on May 30th, including AMC River East 21. To find a theater near you, click here.

Contact Joey Filer at Joey@reelchicago.com or follow him on Twitter @FilerJoey.