Skip to main content

Try Harder! review: The agony & ecstasy of applying to college

When we first meet the students of Lowell High School, they are immersed in typical teenage activities: Rushing to class after the final bell has rung, opening their notebooks to take a pop quiz, and gossiping about whatever the latest thing to gossip about is. Yet there is an undercurrent of panic in this particular school as these teens are all expected to get into the most elite colleges in the nation or risk disappointing themselves or, worse, their parents.

While this subject is nothing new to film, what makes Try Harder! — Debbie Lum’s absorbing new documentary that will air on PBS on May 2 — so special is how it effortlessly lets the students speak for themselves. In the process, what emerges is a compelling portrait of adolescents as they not only struggle with getting into the right college, but how their cultural, social, and racial identity inevitably plays a factor in that complicated process.

Not just your average school

Try Harder: Trailer

Try Harder!‘s formal structure is pretty simple: Lum follows a handful of teenagers (and one inspirational teacher) at Lowell High School in San Francisco during their senior year as they begin the process of applying to colleges. The documentary glides through the school’s halls, quietly observing the different classes the students take to build up their academic résumés. Lum occasionally ventures beyond the school’s walls and follows selected students into their homes, where we meet their families (usually mothers) and, in one student’s case, no one, as his father is absent due to a drug addition that leaves his son to fend for himself.

The primary cast consists of Ian, who introduces us to the world of Lowell; Rachael, a half Black/half white student who struggles with using her racial identity to gain an advantage on her college applications; Shea, who lives with his absentee father to attend Lowell; Jonathan Chu, who is more talked about than seen and looms over a mythical figure who embodies effortless excellence; and Alvin, who seems more passionate about dancing than applying to colleges. There are more, of course, but these five figure prominently in the film as Lum gracefully jumps from one of their narratives to another. These storylines offer enough differences to be engaging while also seamlessly being parts of a compelling whole.

Identities in flux

A female teenager stands next to her mother in try harder!
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Lowell is more than just an average high school as most of the student body is comprised of Asian American students. This results in Lum focusing in on different facets of Asian American identity and observing the students’ struggle with stereotypes, both false and real, that help and hinder their development. Alvin, for example, bristles under the expectations of his mother, an immigrant who pushes her son to, well, try harder at everything he does. Yet Lum is careful here to dispel any “Tiger Mom” stereotypes that another filmmaker might lean into. Alvin’s mom is shown to be loving and supportive; so what if she wants her son to be the best? What parent wouldn’t want that for her child?

Another fascinating example of a student struggling with their identity is Rachael, one of the few Black students at Lowell. Rachael refuses to define herself by her biracial identity; she just wants to be seen for her accomplishments both inside her school and outside. Yet in applying to colleges, Rachael is forced with a dilemma: Should she emphasize her race or not? After a brief struggle, she decides to lean into what the college admissions process demands of her to be: A statistic instead of a person. As she explains: “If it’s something that can help [me get in], then I should take it and use it to my advantage. It sounds horrible now that I say it out loud.” This blunt but honest confession, delivered with a mixture of defeated sadness and a shrug, is typical of all of Lum’s interviews. She’s able to elicit wise self-appraisals from her subjects that they didn’t even know they had.

Students sit in front of a computer in try harder!
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Like the college admissions process itself, Try Harder! can be hectic, fast-paced, emotional, sobering, and joyful — sometimes all at once. That’s the beauty of the documentary; it accurately conveys the experience of wanting to be accepted by the school of your dreams and, failing that, anywhere good enough that you can make work. We see that in these students, who modify their dreams to fit their sometimes disappointing reality. It’s worthwhile sight to behold, and one you should try hard to see.

Try Harder! premieres on PBS’s Independent Lens on May 2, kicking off AAPI Heritage Month.

Editors' Recommendations

Jason Struss
Section Editor, Entertainment
Jason is a writer, editor, and pop culture enthusiast whose love for cinema, television, and cheap comic books has led him to…
The best shows on Amazon Prime right now (December 2023)
Jack Reacher from the Amazon Prime Video series Reacher standing outside, looking menacing.

The best shows on Amazon Prime Video right now include an eclectic mix of titles, from exciting Amazon Originals to classic TV shows you might have watched as a kid. But the list is ever-changing, with titles being added and removed all the time. You never want to bookmark a show for later only to check back in a month and it's already gone!

Save time by browsing our list of the best shows on Amazon Prime right now. All of these shows can be accessed with a base Amazon Prime subscription, no add-on channel needed. We include a link right to the watch page for the show, along with a synopsis of what it's about so you can make the choice based on your likes and interests.

Read more
Tubi is taking its free TV to the U.K. as it appoints new exec
The Tubi app icon on Apple TV.

Tubi, the Fox-owned streaming service that eschews subscription fees for advertising revenue, today announced that it's expanding its already impressive reach into the U.K., with a new executive VP to lead the way.

David Salmon was tapped as Executive Vice President and Managing Director, International. He'll be based in the U.K. and, in addition to that market, is also is looking to expand further into Latin America. Tubi currently has more than 70 million monthly active users in the U.S., Mexico, Canada, Costa Rica, Guatemala, El Salvador, Ecuador, Panama, Australia, and New Zealand.

Read more
3 great Christmas action movies you should watch right now
Robert Downey Jr. in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.

Christmas movies have become so numerous that they touch upon all genres. Almost all of the Hallmark and Lifetime TV Christmas movies are now romance films, while Christmas horror flicks are also on the rise as traditional heartwarming holiday stories fall by the wayside. But there's nothing we enjoy more during the holiday season than Christmas action movies.

Not every Christmas action movie can live up to the legend of Die Hard, but these films manage to pull off the rare feat of pulling at the heartstrings while also providing thrills and excitement. So for this holiday season, these are the three great Christmas action movies that you should watch.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)

Read more