What’s amazing about high school-centric documentaries is that we all went through what the subjects are going through, so we already have this affinity towards them. Debbie Lum’s Try Harder! captures the life of seniors attending a top magnate public school in San Francisco as they prepare for the next step in their academic life. But this isn’t your typical high school setting: with high-achieving students, a 4.7 GPA is average. One student even says “you get used to feeling mediocre” in the school since you are surrounded by geniuses.
Lowell High has a largely Asian student body. This becomes the focus of the doc, which touches on the racial politics of college admissions in the States. In one scene, a student explains how the nearby Stanford University rejects the majority of students from Lowell. They say that the university sees them as robotic because of how much they work for their academic success. It also explores the racial profiling that plagues Asian Americans in admissions, remembering the time when Harvard was sued by students for discriminating against students, especially Asians. Besides this, one of the subjects of the doc, Racheal, is judged by her peers due to her biracial identity. She goes on about the issue of being a child of a white father and a Black mother who singlehandedly raised her, as well as the stereotype that Black people do not care about academics.
The doc also goes over the students’ relationships with their parents. Being a student in such a high standing school, it becomes competitive, and their parents hold them in high regard. Most of the Asian students, like Alvan, are controlled by their parents. Alvan’s mom could be dubbed as a Tiger Mom, but as the doc progresses it shows why these moms are so determined for their children to succeed.
Another topic tackled is the situation of working-class students, specifically a junior named Shae, who deals with a reckless father he rarely sees. He is often left to fend for himself while dealing with a strenuous academic life. Not to mention the expense of schooling; some students take into consideration the financial aids offered to them. Another one of Lum’s subjects, Ian, decides to go to a certain college due to its offer of a full ride even though it isn’t his first choice. His says if he goes with one of his top choices, even if he got accepted, his family couldn’t afford it.
The film gives us an energetic look into the hectic life of Lowell students as they try to get into their dream colleges. It is funny and endearing, but also personal and moving. This balance of comedy and drama grabbed me from start to finish.
Try Harder! is a documentary that lets us take a peek at the politics of college admissions, the life of overachieving students, and how students’ racial identities affect their future. This was definitely one of my favorite watches at Sundance.