Sundance Review: “Try Harder!”

Year: 2021
Director: Debbie Lum

By Morgan Roberts

There is a pressure for students to be high-achieving that has not been seen before. As time progresses, the barometer for success keeps climbing and the expectations for students pursuing a postsecondary education is increasing with it.

In Debbie Lum’s documentary film “Try Harder!” we are given a glimpse of what high school students in America face as they plan for their futures. The film follows five students, four seniors and one junior, as they take Advanced Placement (AP) courses, belong to extracurricular activities, and just simply attempt to become people while being tasked with the impossible: planning your entire life. The film struck a chord with me. I grew up expecting myself to work hard to receive good grades so I could get into a good college so I could get into a good field and make money and be successful.

It is so easy to fall in love with these kids too. They are charming, charismatic, fun, and thoughtful.

But as we all learn, life is far more complicated than following this formula. While this formula is ingrained in us starting at a young age, it is said but never followed. The students of Lowell High School are all bright. Soon, they learn that high-achieving and intelligent are not rarities anymore, and these once “exceptional” students feel very “average.” However, these students are truly exceptional. They balance so much more than the generation before them as they also go to school. It is both extraordinary and heartbreaking to me, a grown-up, to see kids with these astronomical expectations.

A still from Try Harder! by Debbie Lum, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Lou Nakasako. All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or ‘Courtesy of Sundance Institute.’ Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

And while each of these students is incredible in their own right, they face an uphill battle. Because Lowell is a school that strives for academic excellence, colleges are turned off by the population within the school’s walls, reducing them to numbers, seeing them as high score machines. The bias does not stop there. Lowell has a high Asian population and therefore faces many biases and prejudices due to their race. As the film progresses, we see how time and again, many Asian students are assumed to think and behave in the same manner.As a white woman, it was also eye-opening to see the same process I went through and where the differences lie why race is an added factor. 

Lum does an incredible job of showing us the students both in the classroom and outside. It is so easy to fall in love with these kids too. They are charming, charismatic, fun, and thoughtful. They all have struggles – that’s life – and accept those obstacles in different ways. You would expect that I was watching an action film with how I was holding my breath, waiting to hear if any of the students received early acceptance into Stanford or if they got into those dream schools. Lum gave us a gift by showing us the generation who is coming into adulthood, their strive for knowledge and their dreams for the future.


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