Just a quick glimpse of Lowell High School in San Francisco, the oldest public high school west of the Mississippi, tells the viewer that what matters most are not the flashy amenities of other campuses but instead the experiences of what it means to be an academic powerhouse.
At Lowell, a public school where a majority of the students are Asian Americans, there is the highest concentration of AP (Advanced Placement) course offerings available in the Bay Area. There are students such as Jonathan Chu, a competition-winning violinist who also plays tennis and badminton and likes to solve the Rubik’s Cube at rapid speed. Tagged as the “school god,” he was president of the student body council and once deliberately scored a zero on a test to prove that he could still get an A in the course.
Chu ended up going to Harvard University. Without a doubt, any of the other students featured in the warm, personable, witty portrait of high achieving Gen Zers who enliven Debbie Lum’s new documentary Try Harder! could easily have been accepted into the elite university of their choice. But, the stressful process of college admissions that encompasses the student stories in the film, which received its Sundance premiere this weekend, led to varying degrees of disappointing outcomes.
Most of the students filmed in Try Harder!, who were high school seniors at the time, are about to graduate from college this year, or a bit later, due to delays related to the pandemic. In an interview with The Utah Review, Lum says that the students who have seen the films enjoyed it, remarking that “they wish they could go back to tell their high school selves that it’s going to be okay.”
Lum’s directorial perspective is important to opening up the conversation to the larger story about discrimination and affirmative action in the college admissions process. In a 2017 op-ed published in The Harvard Crimson, the Ivy League school’s student newspaper, Christina Qiu wrote about why the topic is a “notoriously emotional subject for Asian Americans.” She explains, “In a country that rarely affords immigrant parents the capability of granting their children cultural capital, economic privilege, or historical pride due to consistent emasculation, erasure, and exoticization, many parents attempt to position their children into American society through education—a tangible accomplishment.” Qiu’s piece came after news of a leaked U.S. Justice Department memo regarding the investigation of race-based discriminatory practices in Harvard’s admission process. Specifically, it was the reference to the Asian Tax, the standardized test score difference between Asian American and white students for admissions and diversity.
While these issues are not mentioned specifically in the film, they certainly are evident in the minds of the students and their parents as well as the school’s faculty and guidance counselors. Stanford University, for example, almost always rejects applicants from Lowell, with the implication that they view these high school students as mainly “test-taking machines” who have mastered what is needed to score well. Likewise, the dreams for most of the students who hope to attend one of the eight Ivy League schools fall short. Acceptance percentage rates have tightened significantly especially over the last 15 years. In some cases, students are rejected from California schools including the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). In their minds, going to an elite school or prominent public institution is essential if they hope to advance in their ambitious choices for a lifetime career. The effect can be brutalizing to one’s self confidence or motivations.
Lum’s affable presence makes it easy for the students’ personalities to engage and pop on the screen. She is a graduate of an Ivy League school (Brown University) and remembers the stresses of the process. Lum has explored the Tiger Mom and Tiger Cub dynamics as well. As a side note, she also launched theyreallsobeautiful.com, a website and five-part short video series about race and dating.
“I originally was going to do a film about Tiger Moms but I put that on hold when I met the kids, who were juniors at the time,” Lum explains. “Lowell is famous in the Bay Area and I heard it was home to so many genius children. Some even were interning in graduate-level science labs at UCSF (University of California at San Francisco).”
The students did not hesitate about allowing the cameras to capture their senior year and Lum was diligent about letting their voices articulate in their own words the validity of their concerns. “School means a lot for these kids,” Lum explains. “It becomes a respite from home so they can step into their own world to define themselves while dealing with peer pressure and the pressure from their parents. They also can be close to their friends who also have the same experience.”
They also care deeply for their teachers. One small story arc in the film focuses on Richard Shapiro, who teaches the most advanced AP class in physics. When he tells students that he is taking a leave after a tumor was discovered and he awaits a transplant, they barely hold their emotions in after hearing the news. Nevertheless, as touched as he might be by his students, Shapiro also is ready to proceed with the regular classroom activities.
Alvan, one of the students who has worked in the graduate science labs, enjoys plying his comedic gifts. His Taiwanese parents, particularly his mother, are pushing him to apply for the nation’s most elite schools. Alvan is embarrassed when his mother tries to give a Chinese New Year red gift envelope to a Brown University admission officer. He ends up at UC-San Diego. Rachael is biracial (Black and white) and her mother insists that she use her Black identity on her college applications. Rachael, who also works on the school newspaper and had written an essay about this topic, finally relents to her mother’s request. Rachael is accepted into Brown. Ian, whose mother also attended Lowell, is self-effacing about his own academic strengths as he observes Chu and other high achievers. Ian is accepted into Oxford College at Emory University in Georgia, where he will attend for the first two years before matriculating into Emory. Sophia epitomizes the high-achieving student who could thrive in any competitive academic environment.
Shay, the one junior featured in the film, believes that the school he ends up will make or break his long-term aspirations about a major career as an environmentalist dealing with climate change. Lum says Shay’s story impressed her because of his incredible drive and motivation. His father went to jail and they were evicted from the apartment so in order to keep his residency eligibility to stay at Lowell, Shay moved in with his grandmother. “Shay had taken a completely path in getting to Lowell,” Lum explains. “He struggled a lot in middle school and was bullied because he enjoyed studying physics.”
Lum says that while the students were happy to have the cameras tag along, they also did not hesitate to tell her crew that they had to get on with their studies. Meanwhile, she also enjoyed meeting the parents, particularly Rachael’s mom (Donna), who came from St. Louis, where Lum also attended high school. “My mom was not a Tiger parent,” Lum adds. During the filming, Lum also spoke to the president of the parent-teacher-student association at Lowell. “She told me there are two types of parents: ones who have been through the process and the other who hasn’t. And, with such completely different perspectives, one just has to let it happen naturally because the process can be pretty brutal.”
The Gen Z students in Try Harder! appear to be far more aware of the realities in an inexcusably opaque process when it comes to college admissions and instinctively know how to calibrate their expectations. In 2019, before the pandemic further threatened to reshape the picture of college admissions, the number of universities and colleges indicating that they would no longer require College Board and ACT standardized test scores as a requirement for consideration had passed the 1,000-mark. In several moments in the film, especially where a Stanford admissions counselor appears, it is evident that schools would rather be enigmatic and vague about explaining the process. It is surprising just how indifferent counselors could be in front of students who truly would enrich the campus community to which they aspire to belong.
One wonders if the people behind the admissions process are so disenchanted with the prevailing standards of merit to measure an application candidate that they would rather avoid explaining themselves for fear that truths ugly enough for litigation and class action civil suits would be revealed. If that is their intention then the incredibly gifted students who embody Lowell’s laudable record of academic excellence will continue to experience the same pains of disappointment that their predecessors found.
Geralyn Dreyfous, the cofounder of the Utah Film Center, was executive producer through Gamechanger Films for Try Harder!
For more information about festival tickets and film, see the Sundance website.