Success is hard to define in ‘Try Harder!’
When I got into UC San Diego in 2018, there was a really popular video called “UC SCHOOL STEREOTYPES EXPLAINED” by the Fung Bros. I felt a weird combination of relief and resignation when UC San Diego ranked third, but I already expected that UCLA and UC Berkeley were ahead in this admittedly arbitrary listicle. Imagine my surprise upon seeing the seniors of Lowell High School acting visibly disappointed when they get into both of these “default” schools in the documentary Try Harder!
Try Harder!, directed by Debbie Lum, tells the story of several upperclassmen in San Francisco’s Lowell High School. The predominantly Asian American magnet school has a reputation for successfully admitting a high percentage of graduates into high-ranking colleges, including the hallowed East Coast Ivy Leagues. The atmosphere there is thick with immaculate academic performances, as well as an equal and opposite pressure from the students’ parents and themselves.
We follow the five intersecting journeys of Alvan Cai, Shealand Fairchild, Rachael Schmidt, Ian Wang, and Sophia Wu. They introduce us to the rigorous rituals of Lowell’s halls. Skip sleep to do homework. Prep for APs, SATs, ACTs, and finals. Mr. Shapiro’s AP Physics C class is a requirement to even be considered by Yale. There’s a constant cycle between school counselors, college recruiters, and extracurriculars. Some of the students even have after school jobs. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
What becomes quickly apparent is the pervading attitude of burn out, low self-esteem, and high expectations shared by all of the students. These challenges are compounded by problems that arise in their personal lives. Alvan’s relationship with their immigrant Taiwanese mother becomes increasingly combative. Rachel struggles with racism at school being biracial white and African-American while simultaneously contending with whether or not to stay nearby for college. Shea, a junior, taking AP Physics with the seniors gets evicted from their home due to their emotionally unavailable father.
As I watched this film, I was reliving traumatic experiences during two deeply draining years of my high school’s International Baccalaureate Programme. Memories of routine sleep deprivation and hushed finals discussion between classes were mirrored on-screen. I knew confident “Sophias” and averagely worried “Ians” throughout our trauma-bonded days in the academic trenches. To see that past life reflected in this documentary was bittersweet. My favorite parts of the film are the moments when we see the personalities underneath the students. Real connections with teachers and cutting loose at dances are precious and rare. Uncoincidentally, these were my favorite parts of high school as well. I really cared about each of the students in this school because they reminded me of my friends.
But I can’t shake that we collectively witnessed harm done. Lowell and its community have had multiple generations affected by the school’s pressure cooker. In one moment of the film, a teacher campaigns for students to adjust their expectations for college acceptances and says they are “not too good for UC” schools. There is an assessment that Asian kids are overly represented in higher education, or that it doesn’t fit certain campuses’ “image.” The film knocks on a wider, systemic problem of impossibly competitive college acceptance rates and a growing perception of Asian discrimination in admissions. All of this totals out to detrimental habits for students, parents, and our assumptions of what it takes to reach success. As evidenced by Ian’s mother, a Lowell alumni, a mentality exists outside tiger parenthood; success exists outside of suffering to get into Harvard. The kids we follow throughout the film just don’t know it yet.
A reckoning of rejections occurs in the last quarter of the film. Students express through short interviews that they spent years “killing [themselves]” just to get rejected. This leads us into sobering moments of self-reflection for each student. Alvan shows palpable relief as their rejection passes from his application portal into his reality, finally alleviating months of weight. For Sophia, utter confidence and aptitude couldn’t get them into prestigious schools. We are left wondering what success looks like for young people disintegrating at the beginning of their lives.
I knew these kids. I was that kid. It’s difficult to recommend Try Harder! to past students familiar with this environment without a trigger warning that says COLLEGE APPLICATIONS AHEAD in big bold letters. I already know about this school-to-therapy pipeline, but it’s important for a different set of folks to acknowledge its existence and start heading toward change. I wonder if parents would evaluate their subconscious tiger parenthood after watching this, and if they did, would it be because the system is fixed or broken?
More importantly, can educators, superintendents, and politicians recognize the part they play in generational damage wrought on thousands of kids every year who are asked to burn out to survive? Until the day higher education and options to succeed outside of higher education are accessible, Try Harder! will be dangerously relevant for the Class of 2021 and beyond.
Rating: 3.5 / 5
Header photo: Alvan Cai in a scene from TRY HARDER!. All photos courtesy of TRY HARDER! film.
TRY HARDER! was screened in the US Documentary Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.