Documentary ‘Try Harder!’ portrays Lowell High School as unique on many fronts

Debbie Lum’s film illustrates intensely stressful experience of applying to elite universities

Engaging, enlightening and sometimes alarming, “Try Harder!” journeys through the straits of the college application process with five immensely deserving students from San Francisco’s Lowell High School. The documentary, a highlight among this week’s movie releases, begins a weeklong run, accompanied by special activities, at the Regal Stonestown Galleria theater Thursday.

Debbie Lum, the film’s director, who previously made the award-winning “Seeking Asian Female,” tells Asian and Asian American stories in her work, and “Try Harder!” is in that vein. More universally, it illustrates the intensely stressful experience that applying to a cream-of-the-crop university has become. Her doc may be more agreeable than penetrating, but Lum presents her subject affectingly.

With both warmth and sharpness, Lum portrays Lowell High — San Francisco’s top-ranked public high school — as a unique institution on several fronts.

Asian American and Pacific Islander students make up the majority of the student body, for starters. The film shows that Lowell is a dream high school for members of San Francisco’s immigrant Chinese community who seek a high quality education for their children.

Lowell also is a place where students in their mid-teens do college-level research at UCSF, and where physics nerds are the equivalent of other schools’ sports jocks when it comes to coolness. Seniors are likely to attend their prom dateless. Prom girls dressed in gowns remove their uncomfortable heels and replace the shoes with sneakers stashed in their backpacks.

Lowell is additionally known for its longtime merit-based admission policy, which the San Francisco Board of Education, earlier this year, in a controversial move, replaced with a lottery-based method — an action currently tied up in a court.

(Courtesy Debbie Lum)

(Courtesy Debbie Lum)

The pupils in the film all appear devotedly studious. “A Lowell F is a B+,” Lum says, humorously but perhaps not entirely untruthfully.

“Students were there to learn,” Lum says of the kids she met when filming at Lowell High. “It felt like a college campus.“

The pressure-cooker aspect of applying to elite colleges “started about 15 years ago,” says Lum.

“In elementary school, children are told that it is okay to fail,” she says. But now, once they get to high school, failure is not acceptable. One student in the doc talks about doing schoolwork at 3 a.m. Another feels like a hopeless case after getting a B on a physics test.

“The situation isn’t limited to Lowell,” Lum notes. “It is happening in other countries as well.”

Lum’s five primary subjects represent a mix of ethnicities, personalities and academic aspirations. Three are Asian American, one is white, one is African American/white biracial, and all are likable.

Alvan, an endearing goofball with Asian immigrant parents and medical school ambitions, wants to debunk the stereotype of Asian Americans as “robots” able to ace Ivy League entrance tests.

Ian, who introduces the Lowell campus to us in an opening passage, entertainingly extols the brilliance of a student named Jonathan.

Rachael feels torn between pleasing her supportive mother and making choices that will benefit herself. She addresses her Blackness and discusses racially ignorant comments she has heard.

Shea, a white kid interested in combating climate change, navigates a difficult family situation and feels a sense of belonging among his Asian American classmates.

Sophia, who captains the school tennis club, edits Lowell’s newspaper and even has an ice-cream scooping gig, is so coolheaded that she doesn’t flinch during beloved teacher Mr. Shapiro’s ball-in-the-face physics exercise.

Lum follows these students over the 2017 school year, covering college applications, tests, interviews, essays and lots of waiting, all entwined with realities involving race, personality and parental meddling. In most cases, their first-choice schools (Stanford University tops the collective wish list, followed by Ivy League campuses) reject them. Students sometimes apply to as many as 30 colleges. A rejection montage reveals the disappointment involved. Their ability to maintain their thoughtfulness and decency when enduring such strain makes these young people truly inspiring.

Lum decided to make “Try Harder!” when shooting a film presenting the college admission process through the eyes of “tiger mothers” (the stereotypically regarded moms who push their kids — hard — to achieve academic excellence). It was the kids who moved her most, however. She decided to focus on them instead.

Being Asian can hinder a student’s chances of acceptance at an elite college, the documentary notes. Being from Lowell, too, can amount to an obstacle. Plentiful in number, Lowell applicants, Lum says, can cancel each other out.

The young people are open and natural — a quality that adds to the film’s crowdpleaser appeal —as they discuss problems with their parents or feelings of personal inadequacy.

“We spent lots of time with them, pre-pandemic,” Lum says, explaining the students’ ease in front of the camera. “I got to know them. They wanted to tell their stories.”

As for this year’s headlines surrounding Lowell’s merit-based admission methods and the school board’s statements about “pervasive systemic racism” and a lack of diversity at Lowell, Lum says that “Lowell has become a lightning rod” for controversy about such subjects.

“The pandemic pointed out cracks in the system, Lum says.

“Needs were not being met.”

“Every high school has its issues,” she says. Lowell isn’t alone.

“There should be more high schools like Lowell, where kids are there for learning and getting a good education,” she says.

She also cites “fixing the K-8 system” as a potential solution.

Asked if she would want her own children to attend Lowell, Lum says that she isn’t sure that Lowell’s “big high school experience” and wealth of activities would be a good match for all three of the kids. “Lowell isn’t for everybody.”

Early in her career, Lum made fictional films, but she realized that her desire to tell truthful Asian and Asian American stories, in an industry where Asians were portrayed stereotypically, was more suited to documentaries.

Collaborating with filmmaker Spencer Nakasako (“Life Is Cheap But Toilet Paper Is Expensive”) helped set her firmly on the documentary path. Lum worked as an editor on Nakasako’s “a.k.a. Don Bonus,” which featured a 17-year-old Cambodian American who was given a video diary to film his story. The experience taught her about the importance of character and story.

“Try Harder!” demonstrates Lum’s skills with these essentials.

Lum describes the documentary as a “deeply human story.”

“We don’t have enough of those.”

The film’s weeklong (and possibly longer) San Francisco run will be accompanied by special events and attractions, including appearances by cast and crew members, Q&As, wellness and mental-health presentations food, and, on Sunday’s slate, six hours of festivities. For more information, visit www.tryharderfilm.com.

IF YOU GO

“Try Harder!”

Where: Regal Stonestown Galleria, 3251 20th St., S.F.

When: Opens Thursday, Dec. 2

Tickets: $10 to $14.50

Contact: (844) 462-7342, www.tryharderfilm.com

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