On the surface, this is one of the funnier and more diverting entries of Sundance 2021. A documentary about a top American public school in San Francisco comprised primarily of Asian Americans where the competition for college is intense gives way to ruses galore. The high school setting provides the perfect amount of petty intrigue for a story of competition, angst, and self-realization. This is the Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire of documentaries, minus the fantasy and ridiculously high stakes (although these kids might argue the stakes are just as high).
The upsetting part of this doc is that the sort of stress these kids experience is real- and occasionally paralyzing. Many high schoolers these days (in my district as well) are zealous, focused over-achievers who put value on the name and reputation of a college over all else. High school isn’t a time for self-enjoyment- it’s work, resume-building, and preparation. Any humor that comes out of that is a matter of irony (this is high school, after all) or self-deprecation. Even more disarming is how the film takes on admission bias, as even the most qualified students are rejected for being Asian, or, alternatively, less qualified students are taken because they are black.
Director Debbie Lum concentrates on several kids throughout the year: seniors Ian, Alvan, Sophia, and Rachael, and junior Shea. They are observed working their asses off in class, stressing about application due dates, and heading to meet and greets, to either receive their spot or lower their standards. Are they Ivy-league bound or destined for greatness elsewhere? The energy of jokester Alvan is a highlight in the humor department, and his connection with the physics teacher is something truly special. On the flip side, junior Shea has a curious and tragic predicament that adds to the weightier issues that this film examines.
While Try Harder! does tackle the idea that you can achieve great things even without attending a top 10 school, it’s no secret that all of these teenagers and their parents are partial toward the big names. Why else would they move to that district with the top teachers and extracurriculars galore? In the context of parenting style, the desire is to have your kids do even better than the generation before you: proof of their talent and work ethic. The comfort that ten years from now, they’re going to be okay. Is this foolproof? Not necessarily. Gen Z has soaring anxiety rates. Who knows what trauma they might harbor from getting a B and potentially ruining their chances at Stanford?
Ultimately, Try Harder! Is an engaging and highly accessible documentary that I believe properly assesses the current stresses of university pressure. As the students here are predominantly Asian, it doesn’t delve quite as far into what being African American means for the application process (the perspective is helmed solely by the clearly brilliant Rachael, who addresses the kind of stigma and micro-aggressions she faces at the school for her biracial identity), but I imagine that there will be more to come on that subject in due time.
The drama of the admissions process being belittled even further by the pandemic, my hope is that in the next couple years, more people will come to terms with the fact that not only are there choices beyond Ivy Leagues, but college truly isn’t for everyone. Until then, I imagine that the weight of the world will continue to fall upon these kids in this system; at least now they have a documentary to watch to tell them they’re not alone.