A Dream Deferred: Debbie Lum’s Masterclass in Self-Esteem
Try Harder! is a supremely moving documentary about high schoolers in the throes of their college application process. Docu-helmer Debbie 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, plus its notorious pressure-cooker environment. 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.
Lum follows a handful of Lowell juniors and seniors, all with a common goal: to achieve more than their peers and earn a shot at their dream school. Each one of them is fascinating, either because of ambition, naiveté, self-deprecating humor, or a mix of all three. But it’s when Lum follows the kids home, turning her lens on their family & cultural values, that we’re truly hooked. These five real-life characters—Alvan, Ian, Rachael, Sophia, and Shea—offer compelling close-ups of a universal struggle: the painful balance between self-esteem and an elusive Mecca.
The beauty of Try Harder! is Lum’s ability to gain her subject’s trust: these kids bare fears, hopes, and dreams in intimate interviews reminiscent of Bing Liu’s Minding the Gap (2018). Their potential is palpable, but their struggle for status is perilous, filled with tiger moms, racial bias and heartbreak. Are the social norms we’ve bequeathed to the next generation going to crush it? Try Harder! is equal parts inspiring and disturbing because the college admissions process has become a Catch 22: a spiritual quest to find oneself … that defeats its purpose by losing sight of its goal.
An engrossing metaphor for all of life’s challenges, the docu explores hope, vulnerability, self-esteem—our ongoing quest for self-discovery, self-acceptance—and confronts race, mental health, class, and financial status in the process. You don’t have to be a student, parent or teacher to find this film compelling; its mix of narrative cliffhangers and emotional truths speak to all viewers. If any fault can be found, it’s that Try Harder! deserves to be a series: there’s so much here still untold, even after the bell rings. Ah, for the life of a student.