Debbie Lum’s engrossing documentary about scary-smart teens and the arduous college application process will make you both nostalgic for and glad to be done with high school.
Back when I was in high school, during the Pleistocene Era, applying for college meant filling out a piece of paper, meeting once or twice with your indifferent guidance counselor, and then waiting for an envelope to come in the mail. It was a solitary experience, where often you didn’t know what schools your classmates wanted to get into until they got into them (or didn’t). Now, however, it’s a far more elaborate process, sometimes starting as early as junior year, and involving essays, interviews, and hours and hours of preparation, at the service of a gradually decreasing acceptance rate. Debbie Lum’s documentary Try Harder! focuses on a year in one high school, as its students muddle through an exhausting, often dispiriting college application experience. It’s surprisingly fascinating, and endlessly charming.
San Francisco’s Lowell High School is one of the most highly ranked public high schools in the country, with a student body made up entirely of the future in science and technology. These kids are way smarter than me, and probably you, and probably most adults, with enviable confidence to go with it. They have the poise of people who have spent much of their lives always knowing the answer to the next problem, and never questioning that they have bright and successful futures in front of them. That confidence and poise wavers a bit once they discover just how competitive and disappointing applying for college can be. With college acceptance rates dropping by 50% over the past 15 years, the numbers seem to be stacked against them from the beginning, and that’s even with astonishing SAT scores and endless extracurricular activities on their resumes.
Nearly all the Lowell kids want to go to Stanford, despite Stanford’s well-known (and probably racist) disregard for Lowell’s largely Asian-American population. Lowell students have a reputation for being “just a bunch of machines,” but in Try Harder! they’re personable and very, very funny. They cry too, in one touching scene where a popular physics teacher announces he has cancer and must leave the school. No one from Stanford is interviewed to find out if their rumored avoidance of Lowell students is true, but it doesn’t go without mention that the only featured student who gets accepted to Stanford is white.
It’s surprisingly fascinating, and endlessly charming.
One almost wishes that Lum had dug into it a little deeper, along with the fact that Black and Latinx students are sorely underrepresented at Lowell, along with every other academically competitive public high school in the country, such as Stuyvesant High School in New York City and Hume-Fogg in Nashville. The closest we get to Black representation is Rachael, a mixed race journalism major who admits to occasionally experiencing casual racism from her peers (sadly, that’s only seemed to have gotten worse at Lowell since its admission process was changed this past year). That’s perhaps for another documentary, however — the mood here is largely light, where the only indicators we see of just how much stress these kids are under are close-ups of jittering knees and hands fidgeting with pens.
Mostly Lum seems to be seeking to destroy stereotypes of high achieving students. They’re not grade-grubbing robots, they goof off, hold down afterschool jobs (somehow) and go to the prom. They’re not even entirely sure what they want to do with their lives, other than attend the ever elusive Stanford University. Not all the students are particularly wealthy either — Rachael lives with her single working class mother, while junior Shea all but lives on his own, supported by a grandparent because his drug addicted father isn’t up to the task. The question of how they’re going to pay for their Ivy League dreams looms on the horizon for many of them. They’re ordinary people, but just really, really, really smart.
You wouldn’t think that watching someone open an email would be exciting, and yet, Lum effectively creates a sense of suspense in whether or not the kids get into their first choice schools. Many of them don’t, and they handle it with a grace often lacking in adults when they receive disappointing news. At the end of the day, they know they will succeed, but that stepping outside the confines of their school means entering a world where they’re still smart, but others might be smarter. It’s a shakeup, but not a total defeat. It’s impossible not to root for the kids of Try Harder!, and it’s not just because they’ll probably be your doctors someday.