Sundance 2021: Try Harder! (2021)

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Marking the second feature film by San Francisco-based filmmaker Debbie Lum, Try Harder! follows the seniors at Lowell High School and their pursuits in the Holy Grail – an Ivy League education.

Filmed at San Francisco’s top-ranked public high school, Lowell has a student body mostly comprises Asian Americans – earning its nickname of an ‘Asian Excellency’ school. Therefore, it is no surprise that while all the students are high-achievers, they are coincidentally mostly Asian-Americans. Therefore, certain students are deemed ‘geniuses’ by their peers and others have numerous extracurricular activities that would put audiences to shame. But in the eyes of Lowell’s students, the question remains – is it enough to get into college?

With everyone at Lowell vying for an Ivy League school place, we see that there are two underlying competitions going on. There is them against the other US students, and another with their classmates. As the pressure grows, they candidly compare test scores and grade point averages while taking on additional advanced placement (AP) classes. All of this may sound slightly unnecessary but seeing teachers preparing students for rejection almost justifies their preparation. However, hearing that such rejections are related to their ethnicity adds a surprising but unexpected level of fear to the equation.

Try Harder! is not just about Asian Americans, as Lum gently highlights the importance of college to non-Caucasian families. From the pep talks and ‘gentle’ encouragement from mothers, it is evident that they want the best for their children. But the students ultimately have to deal with the crippling anxiety of not just succeeding but not failing.

While the documentary heavily focuses on college, Lum shows that it is not the only thing going on at school. Students suffer from personal issues such as racism, broken homes and even death, as a beloved physics teacher’s revelation about liver cancer brings his class to tears. So despite the assumption that Lowell is full of ‘AP machines’, we see that they have hearts, as well as brains.

Although Try Harder! explores the extent some students will go to exceed greatness, Lum humanises them with care to create a curious and endearing insight to not only a class, but a school of high-achievers.

Director: Debbie Lum
Runtime: 85 minutes
Country: USA

Film Rating: ★★★☆☆

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