Debbie Lum’s Try Harder! is a supremely moving documentary about high schoolers in the throes of their college application process. Lum’s focus is on upperclassmen at Lowell, the top public high school in San Francisco—known for its universally talented and overwhelmingly Asian-American student body … as well as its notorious pressure-cooker environment.
The beauty of Lum’s film is her ability to gain her subjects’ trust: these kids bare fears, hopes, and dreams—and, in the process, they confront race, mental health, class and financial status. Watching this film is cathartic. We root for these students, we feel their pain, we exorcise our own lingering demons … and we wind up with important reminders: that we’re not just a race or a test score; that self-actualization matters more than fitting a mold; that acceptance isn’t the only thing determining our fate and value. Try Harder! is a cautionary tale for parents and teachers, an inspirational love letter to nerds, and a life lesson for all of us. Ah, for the life of a student.
Premiering in Sundance’s U.S. Documentary Competition, for an immediate life lesson from the director herself, check out our interview with Debbie Lum above.