“You get used to feeling mediocre,” says one of the merely very bright students in a school full of what he considers “geniuses.” “Try Harder,” Debbie Lum’s simultaneously charming and chastening documentary on the senior class in Lowell High — the majority Asian-American, top-ranked school in San Francisco — takes its cue from its lovable, dorky, high-achieving subjects and mostly remains in a cheerful register, heroizing a group rarely celebrated in high school movies: the good kids.
But underneath the goofiness and gallows humor, there is a darker point being made about the impossible cycle of heightened expectations, cultural stereotyping and ever-shrinking admissions quotas for top-flight colleges. The racial profile of the high-performance Lowell is not a coincidence, but nor is it an uncomplicated advantage for any attendee, Asian or otherwise.
Lum gets pithy observations from students, teachers and administrators, but mainly follows five teenagers embarking on their preternaturally fraught college application process. The ebullient class clown with a neat line in dabbing, Alvan is beginning to chafe against his quintessential Taiwanese “Tiger Mom.” Shea may be a white kid from a difficult, less privileged background, but he feels kinship in Lowell, when at every other school he attended his studiousness made him an outsider. Rachael is biracial, and her supportive African-American mother is a driving force in her education, but she experiences casual racism at times while also suffering self-doubt over presenting herself as Black for the sake of standing out on her applications. Ian is the satirist whose Asian mother considers herself the opposite of a Tiger Mom, in that she encourages him to focus less on grades and more on developing his interests. And Sophia is the ruthlessly self-disciplined all-rounder: tennis captain, editor of the school paper, hard worker at the ice cream parlor, and the only one in her physics class who doesn’t flinch during a practical pendulum experiment involving a bowling ball swinging straight at her face.
At first what is striking is how sweet these kids seem, how they are genuinely affected when a favorite teacher announces his cancer diagnosis, and how they largely appear to interact without the jealous clique-ishness that is the more standard idea of the American high school ecosystem. But then, Lum’s focus is not on their social lives, where perhaps more discord is manifest — among those who have a social life: At a fancy-dress dance, one girl mentions how weird it is to see her classmates out “having … fun?” They go to prom too, but either Lum is uninterested in that rite-of-passage event’s mating-ritual aspect, or they are.
“You see a lot of freshmen wearing Stanford jerseys,” says one student. “By the time they’re juniors you don’t see those anymore.” These students care about college with frightening singlemindedness, but Lowell’s reputation is a double-edged sword. “They think we’re machines,” says one kid. “Yeah, AP-guzzling grade grubbers” says another. Colleges like Stanford, with which they all seem obsessed like it’s Shangri-La, have shifted their admissions protocols away from GPAs and SAT scores and many have a tacit quota on Asian students, in the name, ironically, of diversity.
By the time many of these students — and often their demanding parents — realize that top-flight schools want individuality, social confidence and enterprise as much as good grades, it’s often too late to change lifetime habits. They can’t all be concert-grade violinist, popular kid and early-Harvard acceptee Jonathan Chu, can they? (Chu, for his part, seems like the actual template for That Kid Who Was So Great at Everything You Wanted to Hate Him but Couldn’t Because He Was Also Very Nice.)
“Try Harder!” reinvents no wheels as far as presentation goes: this pleasantly shot but largely interview-based doc would likely be destined for the small screen even were big screens available. Modest though the format is, it’s also appropriate: These students are themselves modest. Years of being surrounded by the best have made them hyper-self-critical, prone to magnifying tiny shortcomings into massive personal failings.
It can all be slightly heartbreaking. If you’re anything like me (Chinese scientist immigrant Dad, these are my people), at times you want to reach into the screen to let them know that they’re going to be OK. That it’s OK not to go to Stanford, that their parents will get past their momentary disappointment, and that they will, to echo Shea’s hard-won change of heart, still be able to make their mark even if they don’t get into a top-20 college. After all, some of us high-achieving Asian teenagers did exactly what we wanted after high school, ignored peer group pressure and parental wishes altogether and, oh wait, we turned out to be freelance film critics. Yeah, scratch that, maybe hit those books and take up another extra-curricular.