This is a timely, engaging, and educational counterpoint to Operation Varsity Blues. It shows the struggle that even academically deserving students face when it comes to college admission. While OVB featured rich, mostly White parents who felt that their children with mediocre stats were entitled to admissions at an elite college, Try Harder! centers on hardworking, academically extraordinary students who feel that they've earned a spot at one of those schools, even as their teachers and counselors try to temper their expectations. Lum smartly avoids perpetuating stereotypes by following Asian American students from differing backgrounds and experiences, from first-gen Alvan who's embarrassed when his Chinese mother tries to give a college interviewer a pair of movie tickets, to third-generation Chinese American Ian, whose parents (and fellow Lowell alums) are more interested in him finding a place to be himself, regardless of the college's rank. For these California kids, the holy grail is Stanford, and, after that, the East Coast Ivies, UCLA, and Berkeley. One telling scene features a counselor giving a presentation that includes a slide with all of the University of California colleges, reminding the teens that they're not entitled to go to Berkeley and should be happy wherever they land.
One brilliant aspect of Try Harder! is that, while every single student interviewed mentions the same wunderkind Big Man on Campus (who, unsurprisingly, gets into Harvard Early Decision), that student never has a line in the film. He's almost too boring a golden child to root for; instead, Lum follows students who aren't sure where they'll end up. It's hard not to have personal favorites or get invested in the students' lives. Alvan, Ian, and Rachael are notable for their humility, humor, and varying degrees of closeness to their parents. Sophia is a brilliant beauty, but she often lands on the side of arrogance instead of confidence. And Shea, a junior, is fascinating because, unlike his peers, he has a worryingly difficult home life (his father has an addiction problem). Lum even chronicles a bit of how an influential, beloved physics teacher impacts the kids. Watching him interact with the featured students is inspiring. Parents and teens should watch this film together, encourage their PTSAs to host screenings and discussions, and internalize the messages about the ludicrous amount of pressure that so many high achieving students feel to go to the same 20 colleges.