High School Heartaches: Our Review of ‘Try Harder!’

High School Heartaches: Our Review of ‘Try Harder!’

You cannot pay the average adult to be a high school student again. That seems like a horrific opening statement for a review about Debbie Lum’s Try Harder!, a documentary the class of 2017 (and one student belonging to the class of 2018) of Lowell High School in San Francisco. And in fairness, there are some adults in these students lives who cushion their pressure cooker situations.

Most of those adults are teachers, but on second thought, their good intentions can make things worse, like a teacher, Mr. Scott Dickerson, warning a student body full of Asian about college admission prejudices. That universities are the opposite of the stereotype of the Asian-filled campus. They prefer to please their country club alumnus and keep the student body full of their children. They do that instead of allowing room for Asians. We also can’t blame Mr. Richard Shapiro for having cancer but revealing that to his students gave them an existential crisis.

Try Harder! is mostly about these students though. Perhaps my only note here is that the documentary doesn’t make the Asian kids more interesting. Or maybe that’s my own biases at play, speaking as an Asian adult. But fine, I’ll synopsize them. There’s Ian Wang, a half jock half geek who wants to know if taking tests twice can up his chances at the Ivies. There’s Alvan Cai, who mixes his resentment about his chances with Stanford and his hovering parents with science and… dance. And there’s Sophia Wu, a multitasker who has many feelings about Lowell and about her interviews with Stanford and Harvard. Maybe I’m not giving my fellow Asian enough slack.

The most interesting subjects about of the core five here are the two who aren’t Asian, and I feel bad for writing that already. One of them is Rachael Schmidt, a biracial girl whose Black mother expects excellence for her. She gets a lot of micro-aggressions from the non-Black students. Her mom lightly pressures her to take classes like AP Physics, subjects that I avoided, so that she can get into Ivies. The second non-Asian main subject out of the core five is Shea Fairchild, a white junior who basically stays up until 4 AM to finish his homework.

In general, the documentary captures the heartbreak that the school’s students endure on a daily basis, like Fairchild talks about ‘not having what it takes’. This is crazy because he and the other five are smarter than me. Or anyone I went to high school with. But then again his words and the words of these subjects are the closest in reminding viewers of what high school is really like. Especially the impostor syndrome of it all.

A few other students student crystallizes a few other things that Try Harder! is also about, like one subject, who is white, feels bad about not getting into her top college choices. The documentary edits that with one of the Asian subjects saying that the college admission system is discouraging the students into disliking the colleges and universities they end up going to. But it also clarifies a different perspective about work ethic. My own perception of work is that I want easy things, although some people give me less or more credit than I feel like I deserve.

These children, however, want to work hard and they’re going to have to. There’s a sense of dread within Try Harder! since the high school class of 2017 are therefore the university class of 2021, entering the job market right now. There’s also a deeper emotional undercurrent in the documentary’s last episode, which is something that Lum is very good at. But going back to that work ethic, it makes me feel hope for a sub-generation. Speaking from an X-ennial to these Gen Z-ers, they have a lot going against them. God speed.

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While Paolo Kagaoan is not taking long walks in shrubbed areas, he occasionally watch movies and write about them. His credentials are as follows: he has a double major in English and Art History. This means that, for example, he will gush at the art direction in the Amityville house and will want to live there, which is a terrible idea because that house has ghosts. Follow him @paolokagaoan on Instagram but not while you're working.
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