“Try Harder!” Depicts the Grueling High School Experience Effortlessly: Film Review

The exclamation point in Try Harder!’s title is a single character summation of the academic pressures facing today’s high school students. Every leg twitch and nervous pen click by this documentary’s young and ambitious subjects reflects the stress of getting accepted into a respected college.

Try Harder! examines modern teenage anxiety by using Lowell High School, the top rated public school in San Francisco and “Tiger Mom Central” (as dubbed by its students), as a primary case study for the sentiments of students nationwide. Following some of the smartest young minds in the country as they navigate their incredibly hectic lives in the hopes for a successful post-secondary life is both heart-warming and emotionally devastating to watch. The challenge of living up to parental and societal expectations, especially considering the focus on second generation immigrants in the film, seems almost insurmountable. However, the subjects still find a way to share a laugh, a dance, and a warm embrace throughout Try Harder‘s breezy 85 minute runtime.

Director Debbie Lum’s feature is searingly authentic to the current generation of overachievers and their attempts to balance their test scores with their own personalities. In fact, for someone like myself, who is a second generation immigrant that is only a few years removed from the high school experience, Try Harder! is anxiety-inducing at times due to how closely it relates to my personal experiences.

The second half of Try Harder! demonstrates that despite society’s best efforts to create a culture of inclusion, racial discrimination still runs rampant in the world of college admissions. At one point, it is mentioned that Stanford University disproportionately rejects Lowell students because they are “AP machines who all look and act the same”. Given Lowell’s primarily Asian American student body, these types of comments lobbed at the institution is enraging. Even though its score and on-screen graphics are whimsically quirky, it’s the blatant discrimination by college admissions officers that makes Lum’s documentary devastatingly essential.

Try Harder! is a defiant response to the AP machine criticism. The teenagers in this documentary, like those across the country, are multifaceted and contain multitudes; they are more than just a number or a grade on a page and should not be treated as such.

The Silver Lining

Even though Lum focuses primarily on high school seniors, her inclusion of Shealand Fairchild (a junior) is what elevates Try Harder! to greatness in its final moments. His ability to fit into a competitive environment and foster friendships was inspiring to watch. Additionally, the three month time jump to briefly explore Shea’s senior journey ends the documentary with the same kind of emphatic exclamation its title utilizes.

Try Harder! releases in select theaters on Friday, December 3rd.

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