ACTs, SATs, early admission deadlines: the lead-up to high school graduation is a rat race with an endlessly competitive edge, and it gets an affectionate treatment in Debbie Lum’s documentary “Try Harder!” Centering on San Francisco’s Lowell Public High School, one of the best in the nation, this breezy portrait has the crowd-pleasing affability of a movie like 2002’s “Spellbound,” while not shying away from some of the more maddening aspects of the journey to college. It’s brimming with the outsize personalities of the high school students, and offers a generous counterargument to the notion that Gen Zers are TikTok-addled, antisocial teenagers — instead, here, they’re just big-hearted nerds.
The largely Asian American student body of Lowell High School also means that the kids are woke without it being obnoxious, and don’t view race as a barrier to success. “Try Harder!” charts the course of a senior year in high school, as a handful of overachieving students endure the grind of college applications and AP tests. Most have their eyes on Stanford or top-tier UC schools, and by the end of the film, not everyone gets in. But they take it with an almost alarming stride that’s either genuine, or the clever work of the filmmakers disguising the tears and breakdowns that might’ve happened outside the frame. For these kids, a 4.7 GPA is pretty average.
At the center of the graduating student body is much mythologized student Johnathan Chu, a violin prodigy who once purposefully got a zero on a science quiz to lower the curve for everyone else, and still got an A in the class. The majority of the pressures faced by these kids they put on themselves. A 4.0 and a perfect SAT score is not enough for many of these kids, including Shea, who has a complicated home life but still manages to excel in school. Filmmaker Lum is an Ivy alumna herself, having graduated from Brown, so her personal investment in the characters is evident. The real star of the movie is Alvan Cai, a math whiz with a big personality who’s super close to his science teacher. It’s touching that when said AP Physics teacher Richard Shapiro announces to the class that he has a tumor, everyone breaks down sobbing.
With the more than one hundred thousand applicants to a school like UCLA alone, this generation is under enormous strain to be the best and brightest, with acceptance rates dropping more than 50% over the past 15 years. For viewers of a certain age who’ve gone through college, the movie is likely to be just a little bit triggering in examining the mental toll the rigamarole of transitioning into post-high school adult life exacts. Scenes where the kids are frantically logging into admissions portals to see their results take on a genuine suspense. Stepping back from the movie to take in the grander picture, it’s easy to see how society has bred such a rise-and-grind mindset, emphasizing work, work, work over self-care. Cinematically, “Try Harder!” is as unfussy as any doc, but it’s also impossible to resist.
“Try Harder!” premiered in the U.S. Documentary Competition at the Sundance Film Festival on January 30. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.