A trio of documentaries revealed different aspects of the American education system.
“A lot of people have told me: ‘High school’s gonna be the best time of your life’,” quips one student ironically in Debbie Lum’s documentary Try Harder!, which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. An empathetic look at the college admissions process at high-achieving Lowell High School in San Francisco, the film is one of three documentaries at the festival to investigate this often-spouted but rarely accurate theory, each with a very different story to tell about the US education system.
Lowell students expect greatness. So do their parents, whose supportiveness often wavers between ‘politely pushy’ and ‘troublingly controlling’ (the term “tiger mom” is used on more than one occasion). With over 50 per cent of its student population identifying as Asian-American, there is an undercurrent of micro-aggressive stereotyping of which the students are all too aware. The school’s reputation for academic excellence leads outsiders to label its students “robots” and “AP [Advanced Placement, a higher level of high school education] machines”, raising questions about anti-Asian-American bias in the college application system.
Equally upsetting is the racism aimed at Rachael, a student with a Black mother and a white father, whose journey to understanding her own racial identity is hampered by casual stereotypes about African-Americans and education – at one point she recalls a fellow student saying, ‘I thought Black people didn’t care about their grades’.
Try Harder! nails the feeling of oppressive, world-ending stress brought about by exams, which at that time in your life feel like The Most Important Thing In The World. Lum is a compassionate filmmaker whose presence often acts like a therapeutic pressure valve, enabling the students to share their deeply internalised anxieties and insecurities.
In the same state (California) but an altogether different reality (2020 rather than 2019) is Peter Nicks’ Homeroom, the third part of a trilogy of films based around Oakland’s public institutions. The Covid pandemic hangs over the first half of the film like a sword of Damocles, its disruption inevitable but unforeseeable. The oblivious students of Oakland High School, however, have an equally vital focus: the defunding and dismantling of the Oakland Schools Police Department, a PD which operates inside the district’s schools and causes undue distress to its students (the vast majority of whom are non-white).
The star of the show is Denilson Garibo, a Student Director on the district’s Board of Education and a passionate and eloquent mouthpiece for the 36,000 students he represents. His tenacity and his ability to foster an uplifting sense of community spirit, even in the wake of a burgeoning pandemic, is awe-inspiring.
Nicks’ incorporation of the students’ social media footage into an otherwise verité-style documentary is seamless and utterly inspired. These self-filmed moments of rehearsed TikTok routines, glow-up photo shoots and spontaneous immaturity add texture and vibrancy to the film, and visually rhyme with the emotional climax of a Zoom graduation ceremony.
While Homeroom’s students aim to defund the police, those in Maisie Crow’s At the Ready are all for law and order. Filmed in El Paso, Texas – just 10 miles from the US-Mexico border – the film focuses on Horizon High School, a specialist school for Law Enforcement Education. These teens, the majority of whom are Latinx, with parents either from or currently residing in Mexico, are training to become the next generation of Border Patrol officers. The political bent of this institution is at complete odds with the two LA schools; where they both have wall displays of Angela Davis quotes, here we have the ‘Thin Blue Line’ flag.
At the Ready’s central conflict is the internal turmoil of students weighing up a secure, well-paid job (something all too rare in this area) with their ethical concerns about ICE and the Border Patrol’s tactics. For some the solution is abstraction from reality, with the rehearsed drug raids and active shooter drills part of an adrenaline-pumping game. For another student the ethics are far from a problem: “If I was a cop I’d just beat the shit out of everybody.” But for others the cognitive dissonance becomes irreconcilable, and a future in the force no longer an option.
The one thing that life for Lowell, Oakland and Horizon High School students has in common is a lack of the innocence and simplicity typically (and naïvely) associated with school years. Whether they are reckoning with racial injustice and advocating for police reform, stewing under the pressure of a hyper-competitive college application system, or having to choose between a steady career or moral integrity, high school could well be the toughest time of these students’ lives.
Published 3 Feb 2021
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