“Try Harder!”


Metacritic (6/10), Rotten Tomatoes (***)

When the pressure to perform is on, it can be a nerve-wracking experience, and that’s the case for the high-achieving students at San Francisco’s Lowell High School, the most prestigious public institution in the city and one of the most notable such schools in the country. That’s especially true for seniors as they vie for acceptance into the nation’s most elite universities, and, given the high school pedigrees that most of them will graduate with, one might believe that they would have their pick of colleges. As director Debbie Lum’s second feature illustrates, though, that’s far from guaranteed, a process that often leaves Lowell students bewildered, overwhelmed and in need (as the film’s title suggests) of ever having to try harder. Lum’s documentary examines this question from the viewpoint of six students as they struggle to make their dreams come true. However, in doing so, the narrative tends to get bogged down in the minutiae of the college admissions process, and, while that may indeed occupy much of the students’ time and attention, that narrow focus leaves out much of the rest of the high school experience that comes from attending an institution like this. I found myself tiring of endless details about SAT scores, AP exams and how many colleges the students applied to with only passing references about the rest of their school days. To be sure, an experience like this seems as though it would provide ample fodder for an engaging film, but this particular offering could have used a broader view to make it more enlightening, inclusive and informative and less like a laundry list of dates, numbers and statistics. This is by no means an awful film, but, like so many of the students seeking admittance to elite schools, this one deserves to go on the waitlist.