'Try Harder!' Review: The Odds Are Stacked Against Gifted Teens As They Apply For College [Sundance 2021]

Lowell High School in San Francisco is the top public school in the city. Every student is practically a genius and will do everything they can in order to be accepted to schools like Stanford, Harvard, Brown, MIT, UCLA, UC Berkeley, and more. While it might seem like just a first world problem for these teens to worry about what upscale, prestigious university they're trying to attend, the documentary Try Harder! from director Debbie Lum paints a universal portrait of the challenges facing today's teens as they're not only scrutinized by their parents and college admission officers, but constantly comparing themselves to their peers as they try to figure out how to stand out from the crowd.

Try Harder! follows students in their senior year of high school as they prepare for the grueling process of applying to college. For many teens, this is a laborious process filled with application fees, introspective essays, difficult conversations with parents, and a lot of increasing pressure. For students at Lowell, it's even worse. This is the kind of institution where over 4,000 advance placement tests are administered each year. It's a school where even the cool kids are nerds, and it's not enough to have a 4.0 GPA. You have to strive to be the best at everything, or you're simply not going to cut it.

The documentary hones in on a handful of students to provide a more personal look at the pressure they face from colleges, parents, and even themselves. There's Rachael, a biracial girl who's hesitant to follow her own desires for fear of disappointing her mother. Sophia, a self-assured Asian girl who carries the confidence and maturity of a professional twentysomething woman. Ian, one of the few students who doesn't have parents pressuring him to do something that won't make him happy, which is probably why he's so casual and cool throughout the film. Alvan (seen above), the nerdiest of the nerds, who's full of charisma and goofiness, often walking around in a leather baseball cap with Batman ears and dancing in the hallways. And finally, we have Shea, the only junior subject in this documentary, and perhaps the kid with the biggest hurdles to overcome out of any of them. That's because Shea's father is a drug addict and a deadbeat, and he's been forced to take care of himself throughout his teen years as his grandmother provides financial support.

Though there are conventional talking heads in Try Harder!, director Debbie Lum more often veers towards capturing candid footage of students in class, having seemingly grabbed them for more casual interviews and interactions at opportune times. This results in a much more genuine, comfortable discussion, and it creates a natural connection between the audience and the students. They end up feeling like kids you might know in your neighborhood rather than the subjects of a documentary. It also helps that Lum spends time at home with these students, capturing conversations with their parents and getting to know how their home life influences their academics and plans for the future, for better or worse.

But as much as Try Harder! focuses on these specific students, it serves a much broader purpose in illustrating the increasingly difficult standards by which students are judged during the college application process. One physics teacher notes that back in the 1990s, it was easy for a student to get into UC Berkeley with a B-average. Today, many schools like UC Berkeley have dropped their acceptance rates by 50% or more, making it harder than ever to land an increasingly coveted spot that is based on a lot more than grades nowadays.

It's not just academic and extracurricular requirements that make the college application process a total nightmare. More and more colleges aren't just trying to create diverse campuses or find the absolute best academic students, but they're trying to find students that best fit the school's image. That means students have to often sell themselves by digging into their racial and class identities, playing up their hardships, and determining what makes them stand out from a pack of equally exceptional students. These are kids who are still figuring out who they're going to be, and they're expected to perfectly define themselves in order to be judged by complete strangers. There are full grown adults who can't even do that.

This difficult task also creates a unique problem for Lowell, which has a predominantly Asian-American student body. Despite being more than qualified to be accepted to these schools, most of them won't get in simply because the school doesn't want their own population to be made up of mostly Asian-American students. On top of that, it is believed that Stanford doesn't accept a lot of Lowell students because they're viewed as stereotypical, robotic students who only learn information to perform well on tests. Lowell students are so frequently dismissed from many top schools that one of Lowell's teachers has become a voice of reason to help students realize that being rejected from Stanford, Harvard or UC Berkeley isn't the end of the world, and in many cases, there's nothing more than they can do in order to be accepted.

The fact that all of this is something teenagers have to deal with before they're even fully formed adults is mind-boggling. And these reality checks make you feel even more for the students at the center of Try Harder! as they push themselves to do everything they can in order to get accepted to these school. But even more heart-wrenching is watching these kids deal with the pressure some of their parents put on them. Rachael's mother seems oblivious to the conflict she's creating in her daughter's heart as she struggles to choose between the school she wants and the school she thinks will make her mother happy. Alvan's mother has explained to him that she's monitoring him in a metaphorical box that she will slowly expand until she feels he's ready to make all of his own decisions. Knowing the scrutiny these kids are under every single day makes some of the inevitable rejections that each of these students face that much more upsetting, even if the documentary doesn't play them up for drama. But it also makes their triumphs significantly more satisfying.

Ultimately, Try Harder! paints a hopeful picture for these students. And it's even more encouraging when you see these students take all the pressure in stride, even showing great aplomb in the face of rejection. After all, even if some of them didn't get into the school of their dreams, they're still off to college to write the next chapter of their life. The real challenge will be determining whether all that hard work was worth it in the end. But there's probably a whole other documentary (or several) that we'll need in order to answer that question.

/Film Rating: 8 out of 10