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Review: Lively documentary ‘Try Harder!’ humanizes high-achieving San Francisco students

Two high school students studying in a scene from the documentary “Try Harder.”
Jana and Kian study in a scene from the documentary “Try Harder.”
(Greenwich Entertainment)

The Times is committed to reviewing theatrical film releases during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because moviegoing carries risks during this time, we remind readers to follow health and safety guidelines as outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health officials.

For the super-smart students of San Francisco’s prestigious, majority-Asian-American Lowell High School, college is practically a given. What isn’t guaranteed is getting into the likes of Stanford or Harvard, and the pressure to claim an increasingly rare spot at an elite school is the central nervous system of Debbie Lum’s lively, empathetic documentary “Try Harder!”

Lum spent a year at Lowell following five students — four seniors, one junior — in the middle of application mania: juggling expectations (theirs and their parents’), insecurity, advice, guesswork, anxiety and regular day-to-day learning. Identity plays its part in the process too. The Asian kids sense a bias against them in college admissions — attributed to the stereotype that they’re academic automatons — while a biracial girl with a supportive single mom fights a perception among her classmates that her meal ticket is being Black, not her considerable intelligence.

All the kids are naturally compelling and wonderfully open, but some grab our hearts more than others, especially those whose home lives add an extra layer of complexity. Aspiring surgeon Alvan has an appealingly goofy personality and carries a realistic attitude about his prospects but bristles at the pressure placed on him by his Taiwanese immigrant parents. Shea can only attend Lowell if he lives with his dad, an addict who disappears for days at a time.

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Lum’s personality-centric approach (minus some awkwardly jaunty music cues) reaps plenty of dividends in helping us see these students as human beings, not statistics in a nationwide frenzy. It’s not a competition movie at heart, but it’s still structured to build toward those admissions reveals toward the end. That naggingly undercuts the idea articulated in the film that we shouldn’t be looking toward a handful of exclusive colleges as holding the key to any student’s self-worth, or outlook on life, when great higher education can be found everywhere. As snapshots go of bright kids facing the next step, “Try Harder!” is winning enough, but considering how much more there is to follow up on, here’s hoping it’s only part one.

'Try Harder!'

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes

Playing: Starts Dec. 3, Laemmle Royal, West L.A.; Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena


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