Sundance documentaries show the worlds American high schoolers live in

High achievers, aspiring law officers and student-government leaders featured in documentaries.

(Sean Havey | courtesy of Sundance Institute) Denilson Garibo graduates with his 2020 class at Oakland High School, in a ceremony held remotely because of COVID-19, in a scene from "Homeroom," by Peter Nicks. It's an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.

In the last year, between the COVID-19 pandemic and social-justice protests, one of the epicenters for change has been high school.

Documentary filmmakers have taken notice. Three of the movies vying in the U.S. Documentary competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival follow the ups and downs of a graduating class of an American high school.

The three schools profiled could not be more different: A multiethnic student body in Oakland, Calif., in “Homeroom,” a law-enforcement training program in El Paso, Texas, in “At the Ready,” and a school for high achievers in San Francisco in “Try Harder!”

One common thread: The realization that the challenges today’s students face aren’t the same as what their parents and teachers encountered.

“A lot of kids today are developing, learning, applying their values, absorbing their information, in a social-media world where there no adults. It’s their world,” said Peter Nicks, the director of “Homeroom.” “I don’t think adults fully appreciate or understand how kids now are becoming educated in that context.”

In Oakland, ‘they were ahead of the world’

For Nicks, the idea that led to making “Homeroom” started percolating eight years and two movies ago.

Nicks was filming the stories of people in line to be treated at Oakland’s Highland Hospital, stories that ultimately became the basis for his 2012 documentary “The Waiting Room,” which shows the obstacles people in a poor neighborhood have in receiving health care.

One of the first interviews, Nicks said over the phone from Oakland, was a mother and daughter. The girl had been shot outside her middle school, and “she was stuck in the waiting room, and not in school,” Nicks said.

“Her story [was] not going to end here in this hospital,” Nicks said. “Her story, her agency, her life, her outcomes are determined by a whole host of things: Access to health care, the criminal justice system, the mental health system.” And, importantly, the education system.

After “The Waiting Room,” Nicks made “The Force” (SFF ’17), in which he followed the inner workings of the Oakland Police Department. “Homeroom,” he said, completes a trilogy “looking at the relationship between systems through the lens of character and story and community,” he said.

Nicks chose Oakland High School, in part, because “it’s a hop, skip and a jump from Highland Hospital.”

It’s also one of the most ethnically diverse schools in one of the country’s most diverse cities, Nicks said. About a third of the students there are Latino, a third are Black, and a third are Haitian refugees and other immigrants, with a handful of white kids, he said.

Nicks’ goal was to find students who represented different facets of the student body. ”We wanted to make sure we weren’t just profiling the top kids at the school,” he said.

One student Nicks and his crew gravitated toward was Denilson Garibo, a leader in Oakland High’s student government and one of two student representatives on the Oakland School District’s school board. Early in the film, Garibo argues that the district should disband its in-house police department, a symbol of intimidation to Black and Latino students in Oakland. Garibo loses that battle at first, but the issue resurfaces in the social-justice protests of 2020.

“Kids were talking about that since Day One,” Nicks said. “That was what was so powerful to us, watching these kids. They were ahead of the world. … It was something very powerful that we didn’t fully understand until after [it happened].”

In Texas, immigration and job training

(Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute.) Students at El Paso's Horizon High School, training to become police officers and Border Patrol agents, are the subject of "At the Ready," by Maisie Crow. It's an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.

Growing up in Corpus Christi, Texas, Maisie Crow had not heard about programs in her state to train high schoolers in the techniques of law enforcement.

Crow said she was teaching a video-production class in a school in Laredo, and “I saw kids running down the hallway with these red fake guns. I was pretty taken aback. So of course I wanted to know more.”

For her documentary “At the Ready,” Crow chose to take her camera into Horizon High School in El Paso. That school has six different courses in its program, so “you could take a law enforcement class every year, every semester, of your high school career,” she said in an interview from her home in Marfa, Texas (where she’s editor-in-chief of the local newspaper, The Big Bend Sentinel).

El Paso is a natural location for such courses, Crow said, because those are the jobs available. In addition to the local police and sheriff’s department, El Paso — which is near the U.S./Mexico border, across from Ciudad Juarez — is home to regional offices of the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (which includes the Border Patrol).

Crow’s film focuses largely on three students: Cristina, a 2018 graduate of the program, taking the next step toward working for the U.S. Border Patrol; Cesar, who wants to support his mom after his father was convicted of drug trafficking; and Mason, who shows leadership potential on the school’s competitive criminal-justice team but also is dealing with his sexual identity. (After Crow finished filming in 2019, when he graduated from Horizon, Mason came out as a transgender man.)

The three students’ stories, Crow said, “work together to show how complex a program like this is, and the difficulties that arise among each of the students.”

Crow said she believes having Joe Biden as president will be a relief to some students, particularly Cristina.

“Her dream was really put in peril by [President Donald] Trump, and the child separation policy,” Crow said. “She’s going to feel more comfortable going into [the Border Patrol] knowing that the commander-in-chief isn’t going to be asking her to do something that she views as inhumane.”

Striving for top colleges in San Francisco

(Kathy Huang | courtesy of Sundance Institute) Sophia Wu smiles at her graduation ceremony at San Francisco's Lowell High School, a haven for high achievers, in a scene from "Try Harder!," by Debbie Lum. It's an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.

Sophia Wu said she has “very vague memories” of her life four years ago at San Francisco’s Lowell High School, so watching that life play out in the documentary “Try Harder!” “is like a time capsule of my time there.”

The movie shows it was a busy, stressful time for the students at Lowell, which specializes in teaching high-achieving students and preparing them for college.

Rachael Schmidt, one of Wu’s classmates, said in the Q&A session after the movie’s Sundance premiere Saturday that the movie “was a pretty good snapshot of what [Lowell is] like, and the emotional roller coaster when you’re applying to all those colleges.”

Schmidt applied to all the Ivy League schools, was accepted to Brown and Cornell, and ultimately went to Brown — where she’s now in her pre-med studies. Wu was waitlisted or rejected by all the Ivies, and is now an economics major at UCLA.

The majority of the students at Lowell are Asian American, said the film’s director, Debbie Lum. She was introduced to the faculty at Lowell while doing research about the “tiger mom” phenomenon — strict parents, often Asian Americans, who prod their children toward getting good grades. More than one “tiger mom” is depicted during the course of “Try Harder!”

At Lowell, Wu said, “I never felt like I was the minority. That’s not an experience that a lot of Asian Americans get.”

The downside, as the movie tells it, is the difficulty Asian American students with good SAT scores have convincing colleges that they’re not “grade grubbing” androids. The holy grail of college acceptance at Lowell is Stanford University, the most exclusive college in the country — and one, the guidance counselors warn students in the film, with a reputation of not accepting a lot of Lowell kids.

One student in the film, Ian Wang, said in the Q&A that Lowell’s focus on college admissions “is very myopic. It’s looking at the next step, not at the whole picture.” Wang, who’s now a business major at Atlanta’s Emory University, said that if he had children, Lowell “is not an environment that I would let my kid go into.”

Lum said she would let her child attend Lowell, “if my kid could get in, [and] if it’s the right school for them. … High school is such a formative time, and it’s amazing that it makes a mark that you never forget.”