Director: Debbie Lum
Category: U.S. Documentary Competition
After the wildly popular Boys State and the oddly impassioned Us Kids in 2020, Try Harder! is a remarkable addition to Sundance's students-of-America documentary universe. Unlike last year's titles, though, Debbie Lum's film examines the rule rather than the exception. Its "characters" – the geeky teenagers of San Francisco's number 1-ranked public school – aren't political prodigies or gun-rights revolutionaries. They aren't older than their ages. They aren't social media sensations. They are just students…studying. They are too busy trying to ace the system to defy or subvert it. They are the system. Real-life conformists make for the finest of narrative nonconformists.
The cameras of Try Harder! follow the Ivy League aspirants of Lowell High through their senior year. It's the year of advance placement tests and college applications and career counsellors and perfect GPAs and SAT scores and Tiger Moms and smug admission officers. Fun is a CV-building exercise; friendship is a bullet point. But this isn't just any school. Within its prison-grey walls and sparse spaces lies an army of borrowed dreams. Known as the 'Asian Excellency School,' Lowell is primarily an incubation lab for Asian American students: second and third generation immigrants who only trade in the currency of their academic futures. The library and computer lab are the most sought-after rooms in the building – described as though they were premium tenting areas at a Woodstock concert. A handful of locals are in fact the cultural minority at Lowell; they struggle to keep up with the dead-eyed precision and perseverance of their Chinese and Korean counterparts. Once it's revealed that Stanford and other prestige colleges are no fans of the smart-Asian-kid stereotype ("AP machines"), Try Harder! becomes an unassuming origin story of racial profiling as well as a tragicomic indictment of the American Dream.
A sound subject-shadowing documentary often makes it seem like the director is winging it in the hope of locating an ongoing story. With Try Harder!, filmmaker Debbie Lum replicates this spontaneity of story-finding even though she has a very clear idea of how to turn the personal – the sweaty charms of idiosyncratic studenthood – into the geopolitical. It's a fine balancing act, because the absence of a voiceover – combined with minimalistic intertitles – means that she must choose a self-explanatory assortment of faces to follow and talking heads to feature without making them look like a diversity gimmick. Points cannot be made; they need to be constructed.
In that sense, the kids are all right. There's the supremely confident girl who is the president of every second club, the editor of the school newspaper, an expert time manager who wonders what the fuss is all about. There's the eccentric and exuberant Chinese boy who is trying to win Western validation and wish away his roots by defying his behavioral stereotype. There's the tall geeky kid with a funny hairstyle who seems to have a sane head on his fragile shoulders. And then there are the two outliers in a sea of outliers: the endearing half-black half-caucasian girl who is trying to repay her single mother for all her sacrifices, and the perceptive white junior with a broken family and alternate-energy aspirations. The two non-Asian kids have a different kind of vibe – a roundedness that can only result from the marriage of Asian striving and homegrown struggling. Each of them is torn between embracing and shedding their roots, even as these roots become an inextricable part of their resume.
The cameras of Try Harder! follow the Ivy League aspirants of Lowell High through their senior year. It's the year of advance placement tests and college applications and career counsellors and perfect GPAs and SAT scores and Tiger Moms and smug admission officers.
The self-awareness of these kids – most of whom are confronting adulthood as if it were an Applied Physics course – is what defines the disarming voice of this documentary. They seem to know exactly what the maker wants to say through them, and even go about verbalizing the conflicts of operating under intense pressure. They thrive on self-deprecatory humour and recognize the inherent absurdity of their situation, the crushing expectations of their parents, and the cost of losing a regular high-school childhood. As a result, viewers find themselves in a position of both sympathy and envy at once – we feel sorry for their sense of spirit but inspired by their emotional intelligence. At one point, a professor announces that he has liver cancer and is therefore sad to be leaving them mid-semester. A few of the kids get teary-eyed, one of them even breaks down, but the scary part is that it's unclear if they are crying for being abandoned midway through a crucial year or because their favourite teacher is hurting. To the film's credit, it answers this question through a human equation without compromising on the integrity of mathematical equations.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of Try Harder! is the trust between the maker and her surroundings. I'm sort of amazed that the Lowell parents agreed to Debbie Lum's project, at the risk of their kids getting distracted during a definitive year of education. Having been a South Asian kid myself, growing up in an environment of academic ruthlessness, I can tell you that Lum must have really made quite the stirring speech to win over the suspicious adults. The access is nothing less than a minor miracle, akin to that of an investigative documentary bringing down an administration. There is so much at stake, that I can't help but wonder if the cameras doubled up as the kids' therapists during the filming period: some of them say things aloud and then realise just how ridiculous they sound, double-taking and learning about themselves on screen. Some even check their admission results on camera, generously inviting viewers into – and immortalizing – one of the most intimate moments of their lives. It's a wholesome watching experience, not least because one almost expects the filmmaker to reach out from behind the camera and soothe their fragile hearts. Not surprisingly, the Asian homes seem off-limits to the crew, while the two non-Asian homes become underdog films of their own.
It goes without saying that trailing an ordinary teen in these times of unrest and uncertainty can make for the most compelling portraits of human nature. At this moment, fictional dramas and literature have nothing on the life of an anxious student. What makes Try Harder! even more striking is its hidden real-world epilogue. The fact that we're watching it in 2021, during a global pandemic, more than a year after it was actually shot lends an irreversible profundity to the nerves in the film. We are acutely aware of what followed the events of the film, even if there is no obvious nod to it. (I kept looking for the first sign of masks and sanitizers in the background.).
To imagine that the kids put themselves through the grinder only for a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic to throw off all their elaborate plans lends context to the exclamation mark in the title. It also lends context to the haunting final scene of the documentary: A student is elated to get an admission letter. The reaction is unfiltered and raw. The identity of this student reiterates the tragedy of the American education system, but the identity of the human reiterates the magnanimity of fate. The Lowell kid wonders who to call first. Then the kid wonders who to call at all. What is the point of celebrating in an empty room? What is the point of screaming into an empty world?