Review written by Alison Marek
“Try Harder!” — which had its world premiere in the U.S. Documentary Competition at Sundance 2021, January 30 — is a feature-length documentary directed by Debbie Lum (Seeking Asian Female). Lum and her team follow seniors at Lowell High School in San Francisco as they push themselves to excel academically and develop a well-rounded bevy of talents so they can achieve their dreams of being accepted to an Ivy League university.
Lowell is the #1 rated public high school in San Francisco, and is considered by its students (and parents) to be a stepping stone toward the Ivy Leagues, which they believe ensures a successful, meaningful, and lucrative career. Just getting accepted into Lowell’s highly selective program sets the students above their peers. The graduation rate is near 100%. The school administers 4,000 advanced placement (AP) tests per year.
Every day after school, the library is packed with students. Smart students. Committed students. Competitive students.
For the first time in their lives, these high achievers aren’t the most brilliant kids in their classes. Their mostly AP course load is grueling. Everyone worries about getting into college, and what college it’ll be. Miss out on an Ivy League education, the students fear, and you won’t succeed in life.
“When you first come in from middle school, you’ll want to cry,” says one girl. “It’s really stressful,” agrees another. “You aren’t as smart as you think you are,” notes one of the few African-American boys at the school.
About 64% of the student population is Asian. “Lowell is Tiger Mom Central,” says an Asian student, referring to the stereotype of Asian parents who over-invest in their kids’ success.
“Lowell is the ultimate self-confidence crusher,” shares Ian — a laidback kid whose Asian mom describes herself as “the opposite of a Tiger mom.”
Optimistic freshmen show up to their first classes wearing merch from Stanford University — the #1 pick for most of these West Coast students. Stanford, however, has an acceptance rate of just over 4%.
By sophomore year, realistic students downgrade their merch to sweatshirts and hoodies from “lesser” schools. And once they’re seniors, they change logos once again. Most of them already know they’re not getting into the Ivies by then.
The documentary focuses on a handful of smart, energetic seniors as they navigate their way from the first week of school through the college admissions process. In addition to Ian, we meet Sophia, who easily juggles her crushing AP course load while serving as captain of tennis team, VP of Girls Who Code, editor of the school newspaper and co-president of a Lowell-based charity. Rachael, half Black and half white, writes for the school paper and wants to pursue a career in creative writing or journalism, her ambitions encouraged and supported by her single mom.
Alvan wants to be a brain surgeon. At the school’s science fair, his project on the influence of exosomes on cell homeostasis impresses a med-school student who can’t even imagine how a high schooler could create such a complex project over the summer. Alvan’s best friend — Shea, white — is one of only two juniors who take AP physics B classes.
Unlike the other students, Shea isn’t bolstered by his parents. He lives with his troubled and mostly absent divorced Dad. His mother lives outside San Francisco, so he couldn’t attend Lowell if he lived with her.
Looming like a shadow over all these students’ expectations and hopes is Jon Chu. Tall, athletic, handsome, musically gifted, and popular, Jon will get into the school of his choice, the other students believe. He can chillax.
Nobody else can. Many apply to 10, 20 or more schools, to increase their odds of getting in … somewhere.
Their extracurricular activities are part of their application process, too. They dance, sing, and play sports for fun and joy, and also to demonstrate they’re not just academic “robots,” programmed to create high scores and GPAs, as Lowell’s critics accuse.
“It’s not all about GPAs and SAT scores,” comments a former president of the Lowell PTSA. “There’s no formula for success anymore.”
A majority of Lowell students also butt up against a type of reverse affirmative action: To avoid having a completely Asian student body, Ivy Leagues only admit a small portion of otherwise highly qualified Asian students.
When the rejections start to appear on their choice schools’ websites, students feel powerless. What makes the difference between a “yes” and a “no” when all of the applicants are highly (and similarly) qualified, they wonder.
“How do they accept? Do they like flip a coin or throw darts at a board?” asks one stressed-out girl.
If these kids have active social lives, or get embroiled in romantic drama, we never see it. Instead, the emotional drama comes from their relentless and energetic pursuit of their goals, the tug-of-war between their own desires and what they think they owe their parents, and from their fears about a beloved teacher who faces a health crisis.
Lum picked relatable students: awkward and geeky in a smart-teen way, their hopes and fears are written on their expressive faces. She introduces us to some of their families, the working-class parents who try to help their kids live out the American dream, no matter where they were born.
All of the kids are goal-oriented and industrious. They all care about learning and achieving. And we care about them.
“Try Harder!” Is a suspenseful and inspirational film that reminds us that focused work and persistence pays off — though not always in the ways you imagine.
Directed and produced by Debbie Lum; Produced by Nico Opper; Executive Produced by Geralyn Dreyfous, Nadia Pham-Lockwood, and Jean Tsien. Run time: 85 minutes. U.S.A., 2021.