Film

‘Try Harder!’ Portrays Academic ‘Pressure Cooker’ at Lowell High School

By Noma Faingold

San Francisco filmmaker Debbie Lum spent more than four years working on the documentary, “Try Harder!” capturing what she calls the academic “pressure cooker” that the students at Lowell High School experience. 

“I’m really proud that the story is from the students’ perspective,” Lum said. “We worked really hard to be immersive in what they were going through and not talk down to them.”

Filmmaker Debbie Lum spent more than four years working on a documentary about the student experience at Lowell High School. Courtesy photo.

Lum, who lived in the Sunset District for several years before moving to the Haight-Ashbury area, shot more than 300 hours of footage during an entire school year, plus more after the year ended. She concentrated mainly on five seniors and one junior as they precariously navigated through the college admissions process. They struggled  trying to meet their parents’ expectations, competing with their equally exceptional classmates, figuring out who they were and what they wanted for themselves.

“I was really surprised how brutal and crazy the college admissions process is,” Lum said. “We showed how it impacts the students in the flesh. You can see how incredibly resilient the kids in our film are. But they are kids. Are they going to be OK?”

One endearing, well-rounded student, Alvan, applied to 26 colleges. He was respectful to his parents and their desires for his future, yet he retained his whimsical, caring personality. According to Lum, he’s the kind of person everyone at Lowell knew. 

“He has a lot of integrity. He’s fully aware of the way the world works,” Lum said. “I found it amazing the way he could be himself. I could have done a film just about him.”

Lowell High School student Alvan Cai is one of the stars in the documentary, “Try Harder!” Courtesy photo by Lou Nakasako.

“Try Harder!” has been successfully playing the festival circuit this year, even getting into the Sundance Film Festival. While most festival screenings have been virtual because of COVID-19 restrictions, there were two sold-out drive-in showings at Fort Mason in February, which operated in a limited way as an annex for Sundance this year. 

“It was a really good feeling getting into Sundance. I didn’t expect it,” said Lum. “I suddenly understood what the Lowell students went through. Sometimes we measure our self-worth based on getting into a prestigious college or film festival. It’s not just a Lowell phenomenon.”

Presented by the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM). the film will open CAAMFest May 13-23,  There will be two drive-in screenings at Fort Mason on May 13. The event will also have food trucks at the venue. “Try Harder!” is also slated to air on PBS next year.

Lowell High, the only public college preparatory school in San Francisco for more than a century, has been a “part of the fabric of the city,” Lum said. She said it was also a “lightening rod” in the community. People have a lot of negative things to say about Lowell, including that the school has a large Asian American population.”

Admission to Lowell, the largest high school in the City, had required a GPA threshold for decades. But the San Francisco Board of Education voted in February in favor of changing the admissions process from academic-based to the regular lottery-based process used for all the district’s high schools, partially a response to ongoing racism reported mainly by black students.

“Try Harder!” addresses racial issues, including through following the journey of Rachael, who is half black and half white. She recalls a racist insult from a classmate. Rachael also was open about her dilemma on how to identify when applying to colleges.

The film also addresses prejudice against Asian Americans, such as how difficult it is to get into Stanford for Asian American Lowell students. Longtime beloved Lowell physics teacher, Richard Shapiro, said in the film: “Stanford views Lowell students as just a bunch of machines … I don’t know how that plays into racial profiling.”

Lum, who has two children in grade school, came to San Francisco 25 years ago to earn her MFA in film at San Francisco State University. She was drawn to the City long before and would visit frequently during her undergraduate years at Brown University. Growing up in St. Louis, she felt like an outsider. 

“I wanted to come to San Francisco because it’s a mecca for Asian Americans,” she said. “In imagining the films I want to make, I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.”

“Try Harder!” opens the 39th CAAMFest, May 13-23, with two drive-in screenings at Fort Mason, 6:30 p.m. and 9:15 p.m. For more information and tickets, go to www.caamfest.com.

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