Sundance 2021: ‘Try Harder!’ Movie Review
Lowell High School is one of the top public high schools in San Francisco. Filled to the brim with talented, gifted, and overall hard-working students, expectations are understandably high. Following the lives of students in their senior year at Lowell, Try Harder! makes for one stressful documentary feature. Under the direction of Debbie Lum, we get an inside look at the struggles of the future of our country. From the moment the doc starts, we are immersed in the culture of Lowell. The fast-paced editing works well with the frenetic culture and high-stakes school work of these students.
We get a real sense of work ethic and workload throughout Try Harder!. There is an enormous weight on the shoulders of these students. Try Harder! is able to subvert the expectations of what high school culture should be by showing “nerdy” kids as those that are cool. Seeing the immense talent each student has and how they handle what is expected of them makes for such an interesting experience.
Another angle explored in Try Harder! is the fact that the majority of the population that goes to Lowell is Asian American. How this ethnicity plays into college applications and expectations for the students is at the heart of the film. The documentary has a sharp focus in its direction and on its subjects. Each student that the documentary is focused on has high aspirations, to get into some of the top colleges of the nation.
Try Harder! has so much heart and humor thanks to its wonderful subjects. All of these students are their own individuals with aspirations and dreams. However, they are also just kids that want to hang out and have fun when they can, too. The dichotomy of the students’ social lives with their school life allows the film to give the viewer the feeling that they are living right alongside these students. It makes everything that happens in Try Harder! that much more intimate.
Of course, with the subject of the documentary being about college applications, the film makes sure to have some heartbreak in it as well. Since the film already has us so immersed in the culture of Lowell, we also come to learn of the discrimination that comes with it. Most of the top schools in America dismiss students from Lowell, mainly because of the reputation of the students. We learn that these top colleges see all of these students as exactly the same. Because of this, and their need for supposed “diversity”, they do not accept most students from Lowell.
However, Try Harder! shows that these students are not the same at all. Moreover, each student that is showcased in the documentary is distinctly different from the other. They all have different passions, dreams, interests, and goals. Some of these students truly want to change the world. So for colleges like Harvard to outright dismiss these students and using the excuse as all of them being more of the same is heartbreaking. It’s encouraging to see how the students take the rejection though. They handle it with stride and still pursue their college dreams elsewhere.
Overall, Try Harder! captures this turbulent year at Lowell in such an intimate and loving way. Lum gives us a great insight into a future generation of America and how determined they are to make the best of it. It’s filled with humor and heart, and I am sure this documentary will capture many hearts and minds. Although the struggles it shows may be foreign to some, the universal struggle of trying harder is something anyone can understand. – Ernesto Valenzuela
Grade – 9/10