Try Harder: Sundance Film Fest 2021– A Look at San Francisco’s Lowell High, Top-Ranked, Mostly Asian School


Try Harder! - Sundance Film Festival - Publicity - H 2021
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival
Debbie Lum follows students throughout their senior year at San Francisco’s Lowell High, a top-ranked, mostly Asian school that’s embraced by many colleges, but shunned by one.

Asian-American milestones tend to challenge the model-minority myth. The over-achievers in Better Luck Tomorrow turn to crime, Harold and Kumar seek stoner munchies and the gay young protagonist at the center of Spa Night finds both academic accomplishment and the American Dream out of reach.

As director Debbie Lum (Seeking Asian Female) illustrates with her new film Try Harder!, which competes in this year’s U.S. Documentary category at Sundance, even the studious and well-behaved Asian-American kids at a single high school don’t comprise a monolith.

There’s built-in drama in the question of whether their hard work will pay off in college admissions. The matter of anti-Asian discrimination by elite colleges, especially nearby Stanford University, is a conclusion among both the students and the administrators at San Francisco’s Lowell High School, a conviction bolstered by a Stanford rep who reportedly told a Lowell kid years ago that all the students at their school, which is 70% Asian-American, were the same.

Lum keeps focus on her five subjects, three of whom are Asian and two of whom are not.

Ian is the winsome guide to the Lowell campus, which “looks like a prison,” according to his friends from wealthier suburbs. His Asian-American mom, a Lowell grad who wanted to spare her son the rigors of the school so he could enjoy a more relaxing adolescence. She is contrasts with the mother of Alvan, the goofy, creative film’s star, a Taiwanese-immigrant mother, a helicopter parent who makes all her son’s major decisions for him.

Sophia, a disaffected California teen hopes for a future on the East Coast, where she thinks people must be smarter and more interesting.

Biracial Rachael faces anti-Black prejudice from fellow students, with many assuming that her college acceptances and other educational achievements are primarily attributable to her race.

The subjects that Lum follows are seniors, save for Shea, an idealistic white junior who is hit with an eviction that threatens his standing at Lowell.

It’s fascinating enough to witness that internalization of anti-Asian sentiment, even at a majority-Asian school. Alvan and Rachael’s power struggles with their headstrong mothers make up another engrossing element, as does Shea’s slow realization that he can contribute to the world even if he doesn’t end up at an Ivy League school.