Lowell High School is the top-ranked public high school in San Francisco. In a world where everyone is a straight-A student, Lowell seniors are stressed out, scrambling to secure places in the country’s top universities and balancing overwhelming pressure from their families and communities.
Directed by Debbie Lum (Seeking Asian Female), Try Harder! is a balanced, heart-wrenching documentary that follows a handful of Lowell seniors (and one junior) as they navigate the gruelling journey of applying to college. It is also a thoughtful examination of how culture and background impact the student experience, and how racism is baked into the North American post-secondary selection process.
In addition to interviews with parents and students, Try Harder! also includes the perspectives of Lowell teachers and guidance counsellors. I found these to be some of the most revealing parts of Lum’s documentary. During one interview early in the film, a veteran physics instructor muses on how much college applications and acceptance rates have changed for Lowell students over the past few decades. Getting into top schools like Stanford and Harvard has become far more competitive, the teacher suggests, and fewer Lowell students are making the cut.
A transcript full of advanced placement classes, high standardized test scores, and academic awards is no longer enough. But then, what is?
That’s the question at the center of Try Harder! and one that is never satisfactorily answered. The United State’s top-ranked schools get thousands of undergraduate applications each year, and the standards they use to determine admission are vague—to say the least.
While Lum suggests that race and culture have far more of an impact on acceptance rates than most colleges admit, I appreciated that the film doesn’t permit a simple answer. Yes, race and background may be a factor, but so is a student’s ability to articulate their own purpose and passion. Of course, culture and upbringing make it far easier for some students to talk about themselves and expound on their personal strengths and achievements than for others. Thankfully, Try Harder! explores these questions without over-simplifying the issue or essentializing the experiences of its subjects.
Throughout the film, students are given space to tell their own stories in their own words. One of the things that I loved best about Try Harder! is that students are given the loudest voices. Fly-on-the-wall classroom footage is combined with voice-over narration from the kids themselves. We see them studying, at home and at school. We see them presenting science fair projects that impress graduate students. We see them stressing over the difference between a 92 and a 94 on a physics test. But we also see them just being kids: partying with their friends at Halloween and getting dressed up for prom. It’s a nice reminder that for all their achievements, the students in Try Harder! are just teenagers who are trying to figure out who they are and what they want out of life.
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Shannon Page: @ShannonEvePage