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Documentary Try Harder! tackles race and college admissions

By Jana Monji, AsAmNews Arts & Culture Writer

In the documentary Try Harder!, kids in San Francisco are driven to excellence and under pressure to get into the best colleges.

Part of that plan includes being enrolled in Lowell High School, a magnet public school in San Francisco. The school has a graduation rate of nearly 100 percent and feeds most of its students into the University of California system. It’s also predominantly made up of Asian American students, and has recently been embroiled in controversy over questions of equity and its admissions policy.

Directed by Debbie Lum (“Seeking Asian Female,” 2012), Try Harder! documents a year in the life of five of the students at Lowell, as they grapple with academics, college admissions and high school life. It made its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January, and will open CAAMFest 2021 on May 13. 

Race is very much on the minds of the five students featured in the documentary: four seniors and one junior.

Rachael is biracial and forming her racial identity. Sophia is the driven tennis team captain and school newspaper editor. Ian’s parents aren’t pushing him for grades, but self-discovery. Alvan Cai is an adorably geeky math whiz. Shea, who is the only junior, has complications at home, but still keeps up the competitive pace. 

The documentary is fairly upbeat, with interviews with the students, administrators and teachers. Through their eyes, the documentary tackles the college admissions race, with discussions of affirmative action, race and equity. One student says, “You see a lot of freshmen wearing Stanford jerseys. By the time they’re juniors, you don’t see those any more.” That puts a glaring spotlight on Rachael, whose African American mother pushes her academically and who sometimes doubts herself and her achievements because of the sentiment that she was admitted to the high school because of her race.

Try Harder! reflects much of the turmoil facing high-achieving high school students today. But Lum has also frozen in time a Lowell that once was, but is potentially no more: In an effort to diversify its student population, San Francisco’s school board voted earlier this year to end the school’s merit-based admissions policy and opt for a lottery system instead.   

“Try Harder!” will open CAAMFest 2021 on May 13, followed by a virtual screening on May 23. For more information and to buy tickets, go to CAAMFest


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