Sundance Doc ‘Try Harder!’ Is A Delicate, Colorful Portrait Of Seniors Navigating The College Applicaton Process At San Francisco’s Top Public High School

The film follows the college admissions journeys of several students — one of them is Lowell High … [+]

In her new documentary, Try Harder!, filmmaker Debbie Lum brings a refreshing, intimate take to the college admissions process. The 85-minute film follows several students from the top public high school in San Francisco, Lowell High School, as they apply to college. Try Harder! screened in the U.S. Documentary Competition at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.

For Lum, the first spark of inspiration to make this film came from watching her older sister go through the college application process with her children. Lum’s own experiences living in the San Francisco Bay Area also informed the context in which she made the film. In San Francisco, Lum says, “People are completely obsessed with getting their children into college…even at the age of three to four, parents seem to be wondering what’s the right preschool that’s going to set their kid on a path to Harvard. That’s what it felt like.”

The exclamation mark in the film’s title Try Harder! is both a war cry and tired refrain. It encapsulates the desperation, dread and desire laced in the quest undertaken by high schoolers everywhere trying to land a spot in their dream college. At Lowell High School, this undertaking is made all the more stressful by the perception that universities (notably, Stanford) seem reluctant to admit students from their high school, no matter how well they do.

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With a majority Asian-American population at Lowell and a strong lean towards STEM, filmmaker Debbie Lum investigates the college admissions process from the lens of race, capturing the students’ anxiety over appearing too much like “robots”, too much like a certain “Asian-American stereotype,” or too much like a cookie-cutter candidate — to admissions officers.

Lum and her team conducted extensive interviews with the students at Lowell, but eventually had to narrow down the film’s focus to around five characters. Following their journeys over the course of a school year, the production team was at Lowell almost every week, interviewing students and teachers, capturing classroom exchanges and having honest, delicate conversations with the students’ parents. The camera never shies away from these situations: we see the students sometimes responding indignantly to their parents’ appeals, or express their frustrations when familial expectations and ambitions do not align.

Lum had virtually unrestricted access to the high school — something that the director attributes in part to her producer/cinematographer Lou Nakasako’s contact with Lowell’s then-principal Andrew Ishibashi. “He really understood my desire to capture the Asian-American story in this high school, which hadn’t been done before,” adds Lum. There is also another significance to documenting these developments at Lowell: the institution is the oldest public high school west of the Mississippi.

The documentary centers around students from Lowell High School as they navigate the college … [+]

Try Harder! is particularly powerful in two ways. Firstly, in every instance where the college admissions process is opaque and reductive towards candidates, Lum’s film shows the colorful strokes of each student: their rich internal worlds, their quirks and idiosyncrasies, their hobbies and passions. There is a sense of how arbitrary college admissions can often be — essentially an (adult) committee’s evaluation on a teenager’s ability in self-presentation. Yet, this damning conclusion is also an assuring revelation: that the college students ultimately get admitted too perhaps shouldn’t really matter quite as much. Whatever they need can already be found within themselves.

Secondly, Try Harder! also aims to raise awareness about toxic behaviors which educators and families might — conscious or unconsciously — bring upon their students as they navigate the college admissions process. “High school students are just under way too much stress and pressure. Expectation levels are unreal, they’re unrealistic,” says Lum. “They’re not really allowing students to be who they are.”

On the film’s website, there is a statement on recalibrating perspectives towards the admissions process, as well as a quiz to highlight red flags and help parents better support their child. “It’s a wonderful film for giving students’ parents, the gatekeepers — like the college admissions people — a window into what this feels like for the students who are at the center of the college admissions process,” adds Lum. “It would be really great to recenter that, so that we’re focusing on the young people, the human part of that story.”

Alvan Cai, a student from Lowell High School and one of the subjects featured in Lum’s film.

Lum showed the film to some of her Lowell interviewees — who are now college students — before it premiered at Sundance. She shared that one of the students featured in Try Harder!, Alvan Cai, responded to the screening with some wisdom for his younger self captured in the film, “I wish I could give that young kid a big hug and tell him, ‘It’s gonna be okay.’”

I’m a Singapore-based writer and film programmer. I started as a young cinephile writing features and reviews from the Berlin, Busan, Karlovy Vary and Far East film

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