Try Harder! submits itself to a certain festival-friendly documentary texture rather than acting as a probing reflection of its sociopolitical environment.
One of the many tensions in American life exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic is the stigmatization, or worse, that many in this country place on Asian Americans. The new documentary from Debbie Lum chronicles one stressful senior year for a class of overachieving (largely) Asian American students at San Francisco’s prestigious Lowell High School and, since it was shot prior to the pandemic, it’s both spared the burden of grappling with some of the more overt racism that’s been in the news since COVID started, while also benefiting from the heightened awareness of Asian racism that those headlines have brought to the forefront of cultural discourse. That said, the now obvious urgency to have hard discussions about the derogatory and dangerous stereotypes that Asian Americans are subjected to makes the affable, audience-friendly tone that Lum favors for Try Harder! feel like a missed opportunity.
It’s an irony seemingly lost on Lum that her limited engagement with the handful of students she interviews in Try Harder! doesn’t do much to break them out of the stereotype which she acknowledges that college admission boards view them through: We mostly see them in classrooms, studying, discussing school with parents, or in one calculated scene that breaks them out of that sphere, busting moves to Rich Brian at a school dance. The general lack of scope on any individuals’ life here might have been an invitation for Lum to delve deeper into the disconnect between Lowell’s old-fashioned, grade-centric approach to college prep and the university system’s rapidly changing criteria for admission, or even the more fundamental failures of the latter to creatively vet applicants. But generally, that isn’t the pathway Try Harder! chooses; instead, the film falls back on the neatly packaged, audience-pleasing narratives of its individual students, with Lowell ultimately viewed as an appropriate catalyst for assimilation into a collegiate status quo that you wonder if Lum even finds particularly in need of reassessment.
A better film would really hold an institution like Stanford’s feet to the fire: In a display of casual, but still blatant racism that’s recounted by one student, a Stanford recruiter, when pressed about the extremely low acceptance rate of Lowell applicants, is quoted as saying, “Do you want everyone at your college to look the same?” And while Lum certainly demonstrates at least an understanding of, and a frustration with, the systemic racism that Lowell seniors are forced to navigate as they weigh their college options, Try Harder! registers as less a probing reflection of its sociopolitical environment than a carefully groomed product of its filmic context, with forbearers like Spellbound and Mad Hot Ballroom very much in its sights — because Lum also knows full well that “looking the same as everything else” can mean a tried-and-true path to commercial success for this surface-level, Sundance-bowing documentary.
Originally published as part of DOC NYC 2021 — Dispatch 3.