The Ivy Leagues of their Dreams – Try Harder! (Sundance 2021 Film Review)

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I still distinctly remember the hallways of my old high school, right before quarantine and covid shuttered the doors of our classrooms. The chattering band kids, the elitist dancers, and the timid art students were common stereotypes that every one seemed too regularly expect. The high school experience for myself was far different from the other public schools in my area. In an environment where everyone strived to be the best artist they could possibly be, the environment in an art-specialised school was frequently and needlessly stressful. But there’s always some good in the memories my friends shared, and the relationships we made along the way. If anything, Debbie Lum’s passionate Try Harder! took me back to those frivolous times of yesteryear. Even as a student on the other side of North America, something truly resonated with me in the film’s emotionally accomplishing attempts at highlighting the everyday struggles of the students at Lowell High. 

The cringe inducing smiles of photo day. The anxiety of acceptance with post-secondary pathways. The admiration and love for your favourite teacher. Awkward sex talks in packed classrooms. The tiger mom rhetoric that is commonly spread among parents of unwarranted students. In a state so far off from the chilly wilderness of Canada, there’s something truly universal about the first-world high school experience.  As Lum casually interviews each of the promising senior students as they go through their journey of self-realisation and future prospects, the more daunting the film becomes. Sure, there’s levity in nearly every frame, as the students goof around like any ordinary Gen-Z teenager. But below the surface is a provoking commentary on racial microaggressions within the education system, that perfectly solidifies Lum’s attempts at creating an increasingly relevant and relatable documentary. 

Because in any system, whether it’s post-secondary or even Kindergarten, there will always be racial bias if nothing is called out for. Bias that dictates the paths of entire demographics based on unjust observations and perspectives. As students continuously strive for success, the end result for the majority of these prosperous students is largely disappointment. It’s a universal tale, of how academic career paths and goals can ultimately be proven unsubstantial. In a present society where jobs are mandated by the same bias linked with the education system, the only way to achieve on top is to strategically exploit the game. If anything was proven within Try Harder!’s detailed examination of student life at Lowell High, is that the education system has been built upon multiple generations of class and privilege that has gradually become more unfair and morally unjust. 

Where the only drawback is the lack of coverage with the looming anxiety and perspective of the general junior student population, Try Harder! is an effectively entertaining and observant piece of filmmaking that is bound to be served as a time capsule in the near future. Whether the effects of racial bias within the system will change within the coming years, the students featured within Try Harder! will be used and looked up upon as an example for why there needs to be radical modifications in the education system and post-secondary acceptance criteria. But for now, audiences around the globe can enjoy Try Harder! as a fast-paced comedic romp on racial bias and privilege. 

Dir: Debbie Lum

DOP: Lou Nakasako, Kathy Huang

Country: USA

Year: 2021

Runtime: 84 minutes

Try Harder! premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival as part of the US Documentary Competition category. The film will screen again virtually on February 1st. ITVS will distribute Try Harder! within the coming months.

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David Cuevas

David Cuevas is a writer, reporter, and the official festivals editor (US/Canada) for FilmHounds Magazine. In his spare time, you can find him watching a bunch of movies while contemplating on his own existence.

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