As the 2019 college admissions scandal has proven, the college application process can be a high stakes endeavor. With the promise of a brighter future on the line, students and parents will do whatever it takes to secure a place at one of America’s myriad institutions of higher learning. While privileged scions can use their money and influence to cheat the system, however, others make their way through hard work. Those high-achieving students are the focus of the Debbie Lum’s inspiring new documentary Try Harder!, which follows a group of students during their senior year at one of the nation’s best public schools.
Try Harder! zooms in on Lowell High, a majority Asian-American school ranked #1 in San Francisco. It’s a place where the nerds are the popular kids, with everyone striving to matriculate at one of the country’s top colleges. With their hopes and dreams pinned on their college applications, the seniors engage in AP classes and extracurricular activities to present themselves as the ideal candidates for their schools of choice. As deadlines draw near, the pressure mounts as they seek to make their families proud and maintain the school’s reputation for academic excellence.
Indeed, Try Harder! will surely bring back vivid memories for those who have experienced the nerve-wracking process of applying to college. Yet from the smiling faces of the students Lum introduces us to, you wouldn’t guess that they are about to make life-changing decisions. As they proudly explain their academic aspirations, Lum takes her cues from their confidence, approaching the film with a lighthearted tone. With the fast-paced editing and cheerful score, you’d almost be convinced that applying to the most highly selective colleges is a walk in the park.
Admittedly, much of the positive vibes come from the idyllic nature of the school. Though the curriculum is rigorous, several classroom scenes show an infectious enthusiasm emanating from teachers who often make learning a playful experience. If nothing else, Try Harder! is a great marketing tool for Lowell High, which evidently provides a nurturing environment and encourages family support.
Despite Lum’s best efforts to present an overarching feeling of optimism, however, several underlying tensions emerge throughout the story. Although these students are overachievers, universities like Stanford still profile them as merely academic machines with little else to offer. Likewise, outright racism is faced by one girl of mixed Black and white parentage, whose achievements are attributed solely to affirmative action policies.
Unsurprisingly, these students are able to overcome these challenges. Even if they have to settle for a “safety school,” there’s never a doubt that they will get accepted to a noteworthy college. But in the context of increasing rates of American children suffering from mental strain, Try Harder! avoids some key questions. Do any of them suffer stress-related depression? Do they regret any sacrifices to their social life? Apart from cursory mentions of the overwhelming workload, the film mostly skims over the emotional and physical toll of pursuing perfection. And in doing so, its efforts to fully humanize them fall short, almost proving the misconception that they are machines.
In the end, Try Harder! is undoubtedly an inspiring tribute to a public school able to rival a private school education at a fraction of the cost. As it foregrounds the achievements of its students, however, it neglects the more intangible price of success. The kids are all bright, but are they alright?