“One wrong answer on a test could potentially mean the difference between an A and a B, or a B and C, which would be a difference in your overall grade, which would be a difference in your GPA, which would be a difference in your college and everything else…” Alvan, senior at Lowell High School

“Watching these bright, motivated young people apply for and be admitted to (and rejected from) the Ivy League has all the energy of a high-stakes poker game and a reality competition show combined.” 

Beandra July, The New York Times
Synopsis: 

Lowell High School is the top-ranked public high school in San Francisco – and the seniors are stressed out. As they prepare for the emotionally draining college application process, students are keenly aware of the intense competition for the few open spots in their dream schools. They scrutinize how every element of their application, from their classes to their extracurricular activities to their racial identities, might be read by admission officers.

At this majority Asian American high school, the students know that they’re often seen as robots and AP machines by college admissions officers. So what does it take for each student to stand out in an admissions process that systemically fails to see their individuality? And at what cost? Try Harder! takes us to the alarming reality of the American college application process and the intersection ofclass, race, and educational opportunity as experienced by five diverse high school seniors living through it.

With humor and heart, director Debbie Lum captures the hopes, dreams, and anxieties of the most diverse American generation ever as they navigate a quintessential rite of passage and make it their own. Alongside its wide release from Sundance to public television, the film’s Impact Campaign centers student voices at the heart of the college admissions process by promoting mental health and BIPOC perspectives, and especially raising the visibility of AAPI stories. With partners in counseling and psychology and resources available on PBS Learning Media, Try Harder!’s Impact Campaign sparks deep discussion between students, families, school communities, counselors, tutoring centers and admissions officers.

Reviews

“Era-Defining Documentary on the Ivy League Aspirant Culture"

Rahul Desai, The Film Companion

“Big crowd pleaser…has the warmth and heart of a film like ‘Spellbound,’ but also manages to be fitfully triggering for anyone who’s gone through the senior year…impossible to resist."

Ryan Lattanzio, IndieWire

“A fascinating anthropological text, discussing everything from the stresses of being Asian and applying to colleges, to just exactly what it takes to take that next step in one’s education…a deeply empathetic look at a system that’s largely failing our students, despite them proving time and time again that there’s exponentially more to them than a simple grade point average.”

Joshua Brunsting, CriterionCast

“As “Try Harder!'' begins, there’s a whimsical quirk to Lum’s storytelling…[but] “Try Harder!” slowly shifts genres from comedy to horror. You almost stop caring whether anyone will get into their dream school, because you already recognize that we should be encouraging students to dream of something other than school. Yet you desperately want them to get in, for it is the only horizon they have ever known.”

Hua Hsu, The New Yorker

“Endearing and Alarming”

Jessica Kiang, Variety
Director's Commentary: 

In all the headline-grabbing reports on the college admissions frenzy, the young people who are at the heart of the story seem to be the last ones given a voice. The voices of AAPI youth are particularly invisible, even despite heavy media attention to the controversial, anti-affirmative action lawsuit alleging discrimination of Asian American students by Harvard admissions. For decades, Lowell High School has had a majority Asian American and Pacific Islander student body. Founded in 1856, this iconic San Francisco institution is the oldest public high school west of the Mississippi River, yet had never had a feature movie made about it. I couldn’t help thinking that perhaps this was because of the historic under-representation of Asian American stories in media and film.

So I set out to ask Lowell’s student body what they had to say about the college admissions process. The students, faculty and administration at Lowell opened their doors to us, and their outpouring of thoughts and feelings about college acceptance, as if it were (and at times it is) a life or death matter, struck me. What does it mean for Asian American students to be pressured by high-priced college counselors to “appear less Asian” in order to improve their chances of being accepted into any elite college? What does it mean for Black students who encounter stereotypes that imply that they don’t measure up academically? What does it mean for all teens as they enter young adulthood to see the college journey as one that will most likely lead to failure? Studies show that stress and anxiety levels have gone through the roof for high school and college-aged students. What does this mean for our society’s future leaders?

I’ve dedicated my filmmaking career to telling marginalized stories. I’m particularly drawn to original, untold, authentic stories, and this story really resonated with me.

— Debbie Lum, Director and Producer, Try Harder!