Interview: Debbie Lum on ‘Try Harder!’ and the brutal college admissions process
San Francisco-based filmmaker Debbie Lum has been making independent films for a while now. Way back in 2012, her first film Seeking Asian Female debuted at SXSW, which gave us a case study of Asian fetishization in action. The film, which followed an older white male and his young Chinese bride, was ardently received by the Asian American community, piecing together a phenomenon that verified what many have experienced themselves. So it makes sense that Try Harder!, which was screened as part of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival US Documentary Competition, is one that is similarly attuned to the times.
A film that spotlights the current cutthroat college admissions process, Try Harder! follows five students from San Francisco’s prestigious Lowell High School as they try to get into the university of their dreams. The film itself is largely centered on the Asian American experience and the pressure that Asian American students often put on themselves in order to achieve that goal. As someone who saw their own high school self within Try Harder!, it was tough to relive it on-screen.
I was lucky enough to talk to Debbie Lum about the making of the film, Asian representation in the media, and what she thinks about the current admissions process.
Congratulations on getting Try Harder! into Sundance? How did you react when you found out that it was going to be playing at this year’s festival?
I could not believe it! I’ve been working on this film for such a long time and I was like, “At this point I’m just going to release it to the world and know in my heart that I have a really good film.” I’m an artist–I make films for the sake of making the films, not for external awards or rewards. But when we got in, I was like, “That feels really good!” I also felt like I could relate a lot more to the kids more now. I felt a lot of empathy for them when we were filming when they were trying very hard to go for schools like Harvard or Stanford. But as an older person from another era, I was raised with the idea that it’s the journey and the process that’s really important. You do things for what you love, not so you can have the gold medal at the end.
But when you stop to think about it, [Try Harder!] is a very Asian American story. Yes, it’s a diverse story, but the Asian American kids are the protagonists. They’re not the supporting characters. It’s about Asian America. That alone, and being a part of Sundance is significant for all of us. It’s Sundance shining a light on a very important issue in our community.
What in particular drew you to this story?
I happen to be a parent who has young children, and I think about their college future. I live in San Francisco. If you have kids here, you’re immediately thrust into this environment of parents completely obsessed with college. Even if you’re not, you sit there and you worry. That’s where it started. With all the headline grabbing news about alleged discrimination against Asian students by Harvard and cheating scandals, all that stuff is going all around. So I knew it was an interesting topic to see whether or not kids would get into their dream elite schools. But when we got [to Lowell], we fell in love with all the kids. Like we met Alvan probably on the first day of filming… and how could you not want to make a film about Alvan?
This film is one that comes quite some time after your last film, Seeking Asian Female (2012). I was wondering if anything has changed for you as a filmmaker since then–any new perspectives?
I am really old and really tired. That’s the new perspective! Between that film and this film I became a parent with three kids, so it’s been a lot and it’s very hard to balance being a mom of three young children and making independent films. That’s part of what took so long!
I’ve always told stories about the Asian American experience. I’ve always worked on films about the Asian American experience. And I’ve always done that because our stories aren’t told. I’m really interested in stories that are new and original and haven’t been told before, and there’s like a million of them in the Asian American community. What I’ve noticed is that I think the needle has moved a little bit closer to us in that timespan. There’s more and more faces of Asian Americans and more and more authentic Asian American stories out there. There’s just much more visibility and it’s really exciting. My family has been in the US for many generations and I don’t know why it’s taken so long–and we still have a long way to go.
I think that a lot has been changing in the media in the last few years, especially in terms of representation in film and music.
It’s probably your generation of people who are doing that! It’s a really engaged, exciting dynamic generation of young people. When I went to Lowell I was really surprised. In our generation if you were Asian American you lived a dual life. You’ve got your one side and your other side and you put one away when you take the other one out. Now it’s so much more fluid. The kids at Lowell know they can speak Mandarin with each other and speak Cantonese, and there’s no stigma about that. They really identify as Asian American. Not like a banana like in our generation!
I noticed that Spencer Nakasako, a frequent collaborator that you’ve worked with, is a story consultant on Try Harder!, and that Lou Nakasako (his son) was one of the producers of the film. What was it like working with them on this film?
It was amazing! Spencer is my mentor and my oldest friend, and I learned everything about making documentaries from him. And Lou–nothing to do with his dad, but I remember that after Seeking Asian Female came out, he was just graduating from the UCLA film program and he was like, “I want to work with you on a project!” He was just a young kid, and I watched him grow up. His work as a producer and his cinematography on this film are just amazing.
I like to tell Lou that he’s one of those rare film families. He’s got film DNA! And since Lou grew up in San Francisco and he went through the public school system here, they’re real community members. I’m kind of an outsider. I couldn’t have made the film without them in terms of being able to have access to the school, the school district and telling the story.
How have the subjects of the film responded to film?
They have seen it, and they loved it! I was nervous–you’re always nervous before you show the film to your subjects, but they were like, “Oh my god. Reliving high school. Whoa.” The best thing is seeing them now. They’re not kids anymore–they’re young adults about to graduate from college. Sophia, the first thing she said to me even before she saw the film was, “I feel really lucky to be ending school and knowing exactly what my passion is (she’s trying to get a Fulbright and work abroad).” It was like she’d watched the film already and was so clued into her high school self about what she was trying to do. Alvan basically said, “I wish I could’ve given that high school guy a big hug and tell him that everything’s going to be okay!” That’s kind of how we all feel! To hear it coming from Alvan is just priceless.
Minor film spoilers in the following question:
In the film you follow five subjects–three Asian American students, one who is half-black, and a white student. At the end of the film, it’s revealed that none of the Asian Americans get into their dream schools while the other two do. Was that a coincidence? Is it representative of how Asian Americans are treated by the college admissions system in general?
I think it’s both. It’s sort of a telltale sign. I went into it going, “I wonder why,” and “Is it true?” We couldn’t control where they got into college, so it was interesting to see it turn out like that. We didn’t think it would be as interesting to film the “Lowell Gods.” Jonathan Chu’s not the only one–there’s a couple of them. The Lowell Gods got into the great schools. But it was interesting the way it turned out and trying to figure out the reason why.
Some of it I think is a cultural difference. Asian American students do so well in school that people don’t take into account that for the kids whose parents are immigrants, it’s all new to them. They don’t know what they’re doing. When I applied to college, my dad went to college and my mom went to college. They grew up in the United States and they knew exactly how to apply to college. So it’s a really big difference. And the Asian Americans are pitted against each other, and you can’t be less than perfect if you’re Asian American. That’s what it feels like, I think, for a lot of young Asian Americans students. I feel like it’s always been the case. If you’re a person of color, you don’t have the right to be flawed. You don’t get to be human in the way that white folk get to be. They get to have all the beautiful imperfections, and you still love them!
I’m not sure I can comment on that right now! I have all this footage that I shot about that film, including this very interesting school psychologist for the Fremont School District I met. She works in Mission San Jose High School, which is public. 95% Asian, two ethnic groups mainly–Chinese and Indian. So there’s hundreds of tiger parents. She does standing room only parent workshops on suicide prevention in Mandarin. It’s crazy. There’s a lot of crazy stuff going on that someone should shine a light on. We’ll see what happens next!
What would you like parents and students to take away from watching Try Harder!?
Applying to colleges is a journey, and this film allows the audiences to hold up a mirror and reflect upon what they’re about to go through or what they’ve gone through. I really want people to look at the human story behind the college admissions frenzy. The kids who are applying are much more than a high GPA and a data point. They’re human beings.
This interview with Debbie Lum was conducted via Zoom by Li-Wei Chu on January 26, 2021. Photos courtesy of Try Harder! Film.
TRY HARDER! was screened in the US Documentary Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
Music and film lover from California.