Try Harder! | Sundance Film Festival 2021

Lowell High School, founded in 1856 in San Francisco, is the oldest public school west of the Mississippi. It’s also one of the highest-performing public high schools in California, winner of multiple state and national awards for the achievements of its students. Admission is competitive, and like some other selective public high schools (Stuyvesant in New York City and Thomas Jefferson in Fairfax County, VA come immediately to mind), it’s been the subject of lawsuits because the racial/ethnic makeup of the student body is different from the school district as a whole. In the case of Lowell, 70% of the students are Asian, which gave rise to a nickname that could be taken as either a compliment or an insult: Lowell has been dubbed “the Asian Excellence School.”

High-achieving high school students tend to think a lot about the college admissions process, and the Lowell seniors (and one junior) that are the focus of  Debbie Lum’s documentary Try Harder! are no exception. They’re a remarkably nice group of kids, thoughtful, hard-working, and respectful to their teachers and parents. They’re also aware that their achievements may not be the only thing that matter when it comes to getting into the college of their choice, and that their high school and ancestry may be working against them.

Political controversies are not the focus of Try Harder!, which is more interested in capturing the human stories of Lowell’s students and teachers, but these teachers and students are not afraid to speak of the possibility of discrimination against Asians at elite colleges. Granted, the American college admissions process is so opaque, that, as one student puts it, when the admissions and rejections start arriving, “you can’t figure out what went wrong and what went right.” It’s also true that the top schools are so ridiculously competitive (Stanford has a 4.4% acceptance rate) that there’s no combination of attributes any student could present that would guarantee admission to one of the brand-name schools (except, perhaps, for a multi-million dollar “contribution” or a six-figure bribe, neither of which is a possibility for any of the students featured in this movie).

Some teachers question why, given the academic excellence of Lowell students, so few are admitted to Stanford, and some students say they’re stereotyped as “AP machines” stuffed full of knowledge which they regurgitate on command. One professor is so bold as to posit, during a PowerPoint presentation, that Lowell students may be rejected from prestigious colleges because “these country club schools don’t want their precious campuses turned into UC Irvine.” Translation: the brand name schools don’t want too many Asians, just as, in the not distant past, the Ivies didn’t want too many Jews. Mostly, however, the students are focused on getting on with their work and doing all the other things high school students do, like playing sports, performing in plays, writing for the school paper, and working at an after-school job.

Education movies like to build up to the “big game,” so to speak, and pretend that admissions decisions are a life or death matter—The Lottery, I’m looking at you—so it’s particularly noteworthy that Try Harder! doesn’t play this game. OK, one student does have an extreme reaction to the decision of an admissions committee, but for the most part, these students are so well-grounded that they greet their results with acceptance, even when they’re clearly disappointed, and measured joy, when they get the result they were hoping for.

As an adult, I just want to tell them that they will all do well, regardless of the name on their diploma, because they’re hard-working and kind and mature beyond their years. I also have to wonder who is getting in, if these high-achieving, well-rounded, self-effacing students didn’t. Some viewers may miss the sports-movie structure and exaggerated emphasis on winners and losers, but to my mind, Try Harder! offers something better—a straightforward, honest  look at some hard-working students as they cope with a mystifying admissions process. | Sarah Boslaugh

Try Harder is screening virtually as part of the Sundance Film Festival 2021.  Further information about tickets is available from the Festival web site.

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