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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!‘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!

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!

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.

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