Sunday, January 31, 2021

Try Harder! - Documentary Review

The Documentary: Try Harder!

The Director: Debbie Lum

The Story: In a universe where cool kids are nerds, the orchestra is world class and being Asian American is the norm, seniors at Lowell High School compete for the top prize: admission to the college of their dreams.

The Review:
One of the things I've never really wanted to revisit is the high school experience in terms of the pressure we all felt in getting good grades, taking the right classes, and making sure we were all on the right path to some destination that was apparently going to define the rest of our lives. For the students in this documentary, all of that is magnified tenfold because of how smart they are, what their families expect of them, what they expect of themselves, and believing that every decision they make and every grade they get is going to lead to the ultimate success or the ultimate failure.

What director Debbie Lum shows the audience is the humanity inside the machine by allowing us to see the students for who they are as human beings and she also allows us to get to know their families which created even more of an understanding about where they are all coming from. The story of a mother/daughter friendship provides some very touching moments and is one of the more insightful storylines as it goes into topics like single parenting and race in the context of the girl being half black and everything that comes along with that. For example, the student tells a story about when a friend asked what her ethnic background is and, upon finding out she is black, her response was "That's so weird because I didn't expect black people to actually care about their grades."

Lum definitely addresses race in the documentary as it does play a huge part for every one of the students in the film but it was also just one part of the entire picture and ultimately it's about the unwarranted pressure these kids are under. Aside from the pressure and anxiety that comes with trying to get into the best school possible, I also saw hope and determination and a genuine interest in making the world a better place. These are truly brilliant young minds and they see the world in a completely different way that previous generations have seen it and that is really a positive thing to discover.

Where the movie is really at its best is when all of the acceptance and rejection letters start rolling in. Lum has given us enough of a story for each of the students that we feel their emotions and we understand the reactions whether the news is good or bad. Lum also manages to find opportunity within the defeats as students accept their fate and begin to reevaluate their plans and what their futures are going to look like. The final scenes of the documentary focus on one student as they receive some very important news and these moments really put an exclamation point on everything else we see in the film.

Try Harder! is a fascinating documentary. Director Debbie Lum exposes how flawed and biased our education system really is and even when it comes to our best and brightest students. Lum  has created a personality for this film that matches the quirkiness of the students and highlights their individuality in a very genuine way making it an entertaining film from start to finish.

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