Of all the ideas to come out of Michael Lewis’ Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, the notion that the difference between a team making the playoffs—and a team not—coming down to the success or failure of a single at-bat within a 162 games season is both the most infuriating and humbling aspects of his study.
The students of Lowell High School in San Francisco, California, take a similar approach. For four years, these kids spend every waking moment tirelessly pursuing the best grades and the highest ACT scores to get into a prestigious college. Acceptance there will unlock the doors of their careers and offer them a dream come true. But, if one grade comes back with a “B” instead of an “A,” then all was for naught.
Worse still, external forces are also against them. Though Lowell has an incredibly high GPA and advanced placement average, university admissions don’t smile favorably on the school. Lowell’s student population is primarily Asian, and racism is suspected, out loud and behind closed doors. Stanford is the popular pick for the students of Lowell, but the private university 30 miles south has it out for Lowell, and Stanfords’ already minuscule selection rate (4.3%) narrows even more.
“They see us as GPA machines,” one Lowell student explains in Try Harder!, the fly-on-the-wall documentary from Debbie Lum. Lum and her team follow six students as they chase their collegiate dreams through the halls of Lowell. Stanford is the university of choice here, as are Harvard, Yale, and UC-Berkley. Lum and cinematographers Kathy Huang and Lou Nakasako mostly stay out of the kids’ lives, only asking questions from behind the camera when necessary. Still, you can almost hear them whispering when no one is looking: Occidental is just as good as Stanford. Brown is no second fiddle to Harvard. And that piece of paper you’ll get from UC-Berkley: the one from UC-Redlands means just as much. To which the students respond: No, I just have to try harder.
Try Harder! is currently playing the Sundance Film Festival.