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For the savvy students at the prestigious, predominantly Asian and Asian American school Lowell Highell in San Francisco, college is practically a given. What’s not guaranteed is entry into the likes of Stanford or Harvard, and the pressure to claim an increasingly rare place in an elite school is the central nervous system for Debbie Lum’s vibrant and emotional documentary “Try Hard!”
Lum spent a year at Lowell following five students—four seniors, and one novice—in the middle of an app mania: juggling between expectations (theirs and their parents), insecurities, advice, guesswork, anxiety, and regular daily learning. Identity plays its part in the process as well. Asian children feel prejudiced against in college admissions – owed to the stereotype that they are academic robots – while the biracial girl with her supportive single mother battles a perception among her classmates that her meal ticket is black, not her great smarts.
All kids are naturally persuasive and wonderfully open-minded, but some hold our hearts more than others, especially those whose home lives add an extra layer of complexity. Ambitious surgeon Alvan has a charismatic goofy personality and takes a realistic stance about his odds, but worries about the pressure being put on him by his Taiwanese immigrant parents. Shea can only attend Lowell if he lives with his father, and he’s a hangover addict for days at a time.
Lum’s character-focused approach (with the exception of some cliched music cues) reaps a lot of benefit in helping us see these students as human beings, not statistics in a national frenzy. It’s not a competitive movie at its core, but it’s still structured to build toward those confessions that eventually reveal. This disturbingly undermines the idea expressed in the film that we should not look to a handful of exclusive colleges as holding the key to any student’s self-esteem, or outlook on life, when great higher education can be found everywhere. As the footage moves on to witty kids facing the next step, “Try hard!” Wins enough, but given how much more there is to follow, I hope it’s only the first part.
‘Make an effort!’
running time: 1 hour 25 minutes
play: Starts December 3, Laemmle Royal, West LA; Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena