Trailer Watch: Debbie Lum Follows Ivy League Hopefuls at an Elite High School in “Try Harder!”

Debbie Lum takes audiences inside the #1 ranked public high school in San Francisco in “Try Harder!” “The kids who come here, they are competing in a world that is very high achieving. It’s terrifying,” we’re told in a new trailer for the documentary.

The Sundance title follows seniors at Lowell High School, the majority of whom are Asian American, as they work tirelessly to impress admissions officers at universities like Harvard, Stanford, and Columbia. “If I could, I would probably just take the SAT every single week,” one student says. Others feel like “the pressure is insurmountable at times.” One senior emphasizes, “It’s hard to have a strong sense of self-esteem because you’re always comparing yourself to other people.”

“In all the headlines-grabbing reports on the insanity of the college admissions process, the students who are at the heart of the story seem to be the last ones given a voice. Lowell High School, a San Francisco institution and the oldest public high school west of the Mississippi River, had never had a feature-length documentary about it. I couldn’t help think that, perhaps because Lowell has had a large or predominantly Asian American student body for decades, this might have something to do with it,” Lum told us.

“I went to a high school in America’s heartland,” the director explained, “more reminiscent of ‘The Breakfast Club,’ where being Asian American meant being either an outcast or invisible. I was fascinated by a high school universe where being Asian American is the norm. I’ve dedicated my filmmaking career to telling Asian American stories. I’m drawn to the untold, authentic stories, and this one really resonated for me.”

“Seeking Asian Female,” Lum’s feature-length directorial debut, premiered at SXSW and aired on PBS’ “Independent Lens.”

“Try Harder!” hits theaters December 3.

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