Try Harder Film Review

By: Vernon Nickerson

At Lowell High School, the top-ranked public high school in San Francisco,
the seniors are stressed out and I can can relate. “Try Harder” shows the unbelievable pressure students are under to achieve their dream, but sometimes it’s not their dream but their parents. There is a parallel of what these students went through and what I went through in my earlier academic life.

In 2017, let us go back to those days before the pandemic for an amazingly detailed nostalgic look– at helicopter parents, a time when comparatively “tiny” envelopes of money were available to unscrupulous ELITE college admissions officers were “harmless” Chinese New Year Gifts. Yes, gentle reader it was weirdly calming, reassuring and relaxing to travel back in time to see what would transmogrify into the now “Infamous Varsity Blues scandal before a Worldwide Public Health Disaster and Global COVID-19 Pandemic.

I was, consequently, totally engaged from the beginning to the very last frames of “Try Harder”, a documentary film from Debbie Lum. Welcome to the Origin Story/ Blockbuster Expose of….wait for it…The 2022 Graduating classes of… USC, UCLA, UCSD, UC DAVIS, HARVARD, YALE, PRINCETON, and Brown University, to name drop just a few for fun(!?!). A cautionary tale whose time I had hoped by 1981 had come and gone. Lowell High School was established in 1856, it traditionally admitted the highest performing students from all over the city, based on exams, test scores and other factors. After the pandemic, starting in 2021, Lowell admissions criteria were changed to a lottery, igniting controversy over equity and merit-based selective admissions schools (similar to Stuyvesant and Boston Latin). Stanford University is one of 150 colleges that visit Lowell High School every year to recruit its seniors.

In the documentary “Try Harder” as students 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 Lowell where cool kids are nerds, nearly everyone has an amazing talent, and the majority of the student body is Asian American the things that usually make a person stand out can feel not good enough, even commonplace.

You see, back in the previous Century I was a graduating senior at yet another JFK(memorial)HS in a small Northern New Jersey town a stone’s throw from the toxic, silk industry-poisoned waters of The Great “Falls”( multiple entendres intended here and see below).

My father, who had for all my years of indentured servitude as an over-achiever in America’s Glorious “Free” Public School System was furious, neigh, apoplectic with red-hot rage! You see, I, the 100% hermetically sealed closeted homosexual left-handed-middle child had ONLY a second place class ranking after: 11 Consecutive Years of Honor Roll, a boatload of college scholarships, a US Presidential Scholar Medallion, a Rensselaer Medal for Achievement in Mathematics ( with a scholarship to RPI), Early Admission to Case Western Reserve University and “Regular” Admission to YALE and NORTHWESTERN Universities and had been re-elected as Student Body President and first Black-American…blah, blah, blah.

Oh, right, ever the iconoclast, I had followed his dictum that I had the “freedom” to go to any school I wanted to…as long as I paid for it(!)… by CHOOSING NORTHWESTERN. That was the second thing that pissed him off. He coveted bragging rights to Yale and I had foiled his ease-of-access plans! NU was notable at the time (1977) for being an Anti-Affirmative Action Admissions institution of higher education, i.e., no lowering of standards because of skin color. By a total miracle, NU’S financial aid package and those other scholarships* had trumped Yale’s pathetc perfunctory offer by any known metric. based on my working myself to exhaustion (True story: my doctor wanted to hospitalize me for exhaustion and deyhdration the week of the Senior Awards Assembly, but I vehemently refused to comply, btw!). But my Dear Father ( a DJT B4 DJT, quiet as it was always kept) was angry about a STUPID CLASS RANK!!!

Meanwhile, back in Milwaukee, Wisconsin Public Schools in 1976/77, they officially finacially fed off the Federal Affirmative action for School Integration dollars by busing their black students to FABULOUS white schools for lunch, then busing them back to the dilapidated all-Black inner city schools for 100% of their instructional day.

So from this independent film critic’s POV, every parent with a child or children in any public school must go and see “Try Harder.” Perhaps you can now take solace as you see for yourselves how little has really changed in the USA you were led to believe might still descend into dystopian chaos in your communities. See how the art of masterful documentary filmmaking still is quite adept at imitating life! “Try Harder” premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival and was nominated for the 2022 Audience Choice Award. For more information about try harder and to see or support the film go here or Facebook .

Try Harder (2021)

Rating: 10 out of 10 stars possible

( Made in 2017/18, just in time for a 2022 Oscar nomination.)

Genre: Documentary

Filmmaker: Debbie Lum

Runtime: 1h 25m

*( National Merit Scholarship included)