Try Harder! shows the difficulties of being a child prodigy and the failings of the American education system, while never losing sympathy for its subjects.
Every parent wants their child to be happy and successful, and often the two come hand in hand. A good job leads to financial stability, which leads to having the resources to pursue your passions, which leads to a happy life. Less glamorous, however, is the long and arduous process of getting to the dream job. This often entails hours of studying and prep work just for a shot at being admitted to a college that can give you the credentials you need to be prosperous. Anyone who has pursued higher education can remember the nerve-wracking week of admissions announcements, where colleges determined the fates of thousands of students with a simple, impersonal email. It’s a brutal experience for children who are just beginning their journey into adulthood, and it’s the focus for Debbie Lum’s new documentary Try Harder! Which is both a damming portrait of an education system that sees students as statistics and a sympathetic look at the students doing their very best to live up to the monumental expectations put upon them.
Try Harder! sets the majority of its breezy 80-minute runtime within the walls of Lowell High, a nationally ranked high school in San Francisco with a majority Asian student body and a heavy focus on STEM courses. With an exhaustive admission process and plenty of competition from some of the best young minds in the area, even getting accepted is an accomplishment in itself. Unfortunately, this achievement means very little once the year starts and it becomes clear that what was exceptional in the public school system is subpar in a student body where the average student’s workload includes multiple AP classes and enough extracurricular activities to keep a small town busy. It comes as no surprise, then, that the film’s opening scenes showcase the school’s packed study areas and a library filled with students, many of whom will be there hours after the final bell rings.
We are also introduced to our cast of characters, that we will follow for the film’s runtime. There’s Alvan, who has his sights set on UCLA from minute one. Rachel, who struggles with how to present her mixed ethnicity both socially and to college boards. Shea, one of the few white students whose precarious home life routinely threatens his academic success. Ian, our de facto tour guide who holds no illusions about his prospects post-Lowell. And Sofia, one of the few students confident in her academic abilities. While the documentary touches on other students throughout (including the class president, who purposely got a 0 on a test and still kept an A), these five provide the emotional core of the film, and Lum’s choice to move focus away from the high-profile students and to kids with uncertain college prospects gives the film a level of suspense that intensifies as the film continues.
While each of the students the film puts its focus on are insanely talented and driven, the road to the success they each crave is not an easy one and highlights some of the key failings of the American education system. Rachel routinely experiences racism in the form of passive-aggressive insults and backhanded compliments, an issue that hasn’t gone away as Lowell is currently in the middle of an investigation pertaining to a series of racist and anti-Semitic posts from students during an online seminar. Even worse is the treatment of the entire student body by college admissions boards, who openly admit they are hesitant to accept students from Lowell due to the perception that the student body is made of Asian children who work to do well on tests and not much else. It’s a slap in the face for the non-Asian students, and a blatantly racist attack for everyone else.
It’s at this point in the film (about 20 minutes in) that Lum shifts her presentation of the students. In the first act of the film, we see the students as the colleges do: they don’t seem to have any personality besides wanting to succeed, and it’s difficult to empathize with them. However, after the scenes revealing the bias against the students at Lowell, Lum begins to explore their personal lives and interests and shows us that, while they do put a good portion of their self-worth into their academic performance, that’s not all there is to them. For the remainder of the film, Lum gets us rooting for the students, as admissions letters begin to pour in, letting us share in their triumphs and defeats as they move on to the next stage of their lives.
Success looks different to everyone; one person’s dream job may be another person’s nightmare. The future that the students in Try Harder! are striving for is not one that many may be interested in. They want to be surgeons, engineers, and journalists, all of them wanting to make a positive difference in a world they recognize is at a crucial tipping point. But even if the life they strive for is not one that holds any appeal to us, Lum keeps us invested in their success until the final, triumphant shot. It’s both an infuriating and hopeful documentary, that shows us how a system can fail those best set up to succeed while also showing us the profound resiliency of those determined to make their mark on the world. Their lives may not be what they envisioned as they entered Lowell their freshmen year, but I think it’s safe to say that the kids of Try Harder! are still on track to achieve their dreams, whatever they may be.
Try Harder! premiered online, at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, on Saturday, January 30. A second digital screening will take place on Monday, February 1, at 7:00 AM PST / 8:00 AM MST. Click here for tickets.
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