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Asian-American cinematic milestones tend to challenge the model-minority myth. The over-achievers in Better Luck Tomorrow turn to crime, Harold and Kumar seek stoner munchies and the gay young protagonist at the center of Spa Night finds both academic accomplishment and the American Dream hopelessly out of reach. There’s a defensiveness inherent to those films, which seem to assert, “We’re not all dutiful, high-achieving rule-followers.” And to be fair, doing hours of math problems or complying with parental whims isn’t exactly movie material.
Or maybe we’re wrong. As director Debbie Lum (Seeking Asian Female) illustrates with her new film Try Harder!, which competes in this year’s U.S. Documentary category at Sundance, even the studious and well-behaved Asian-American kids at a single high school don’t comprise a monolith, and there’s built-in drama in the question of whether all their hard work will pay off in the form of college admissions. The matter of anti-Asian discrimination by elite colleges, especially nearby Stanford University, is a foregone conclusion among both the students and the administrators at San Francisco’s Lowell High School — a conviction bolstered by a Stanford rep who reportedly told a Lowell kid some years ago that all the students at their school, which is 70% Asian-American, were the same.
For better and for worse, Lum keeps a tight focus on her five subjects, three of whom are Asian and two of whom are not. Ian is our winsome guide to the Lowell campus, which “looks like a prison,” according to his friends from wealthier suburbs. (The top-ranked public high school in the city, Lowell seems to instill in most of the kids the belief that “you aren’t as smart as you think you are.”) Ian’s Asian-American mom, a Lowell grad who initially wanted to spare her son the rigors of the school so he could enjoy a more relaxing adolescence, contrasts against Alvan’s Taiwanese-immigrant mother, a helicopter parent who makes all her son’s major decisions for him. Goofy, creative and open, Alvan is the film’s star — and its most moving reminder that tiger moms don’t always stamp out the bursting individuality of their cubs.
Sophia is the closest we get to a Lady Bird — a disaffected California teen who pins much of her hopes for the future on the East Coast, where she thinks people must be smarter and more interesting. Biracial Rachael faces anti-Black prejudice from her fellow students, many of whom assume that her college acceptances and other educational achievements are primarily attributable to her race. (Rachael’s storyline also reassures us that tiger moms come in all colors.) The subjects that Lum follows are seniors, save for Shea, an idealistic white junior who is hit with an eviction that threatens his standing at Lowell.
Spanning a school year, Try Harder! is a gentle and curious film, mostly interested in the experiences and perspectives of its young subjects. Lum chose an engaging cross-section of students, though I wish she’d pushed her Asian-American interviewees to elaborate when it came to their racial identities. (Alvan says he strives to appear less stereotypically Asian, while Sophia grumbles, “I’m kinda tired of Chinese people.”) Still, it’s fascinating enough (and of course sad) to witness that internalization of anti-Asian sentiment, even at a majority-Asian school. Alvan and Rachael’s power struggles with their headstrong mothers make up another engrossing element, as does Shea’s slow realization that he can contribute to the world even if he doesn’t end up at an Ivy League school.
But teenagers aren’t always the most informed about the circumstances in which they exist. That’s where Try Harder! would’ve benefitted: more context from teachers, administrators and Lum herself. Mr. Shapiro, a physics teacher who gets his own surprising plotline, notes early in the film that, with admissions more competitive than in decades past, his current students are under much more pressure than their counterparts 30 years ago. He laments that so many colleges only see his students as “AP machines,” a reality that administrators (wisely) respond to by encouraging students to diversify their list of schools. The doc is full of charming B-roll of Lowell students in extracurricular activities based on Chinese culture, but it’s unclear whether there’s any curricula or clubs dedicated to learning about Asian-American history, of which San Francisco is a major locus.
There’s probably a dozen more nitpicks I could make about Try Harder!, many stemming from my own experience at a high school quite similar to Lowell. (To quickly note just two: I wish there had been more discussion of class, given the high percentage of students from low-income households at Lowell, and a greater clarification as to what percentage of the students are “Chinese-American” versus “Asian-American.”) But I think that my niggling frustrations at the film speak to how important the film feels, and how much more I wanted to learn about the students Lum follows, and all the kids around them as well.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)
Production companies: ITVS, CAAM, California Humanitas
Director: Debbie Lum
Producers: Debbie Lum, Nico Opper, Lou Nakasako
Executive producer: Geralyn Dreyfous, Nadia Pham-Lockwood, Jean Tsien
Director of photography: Lou Nakasako, Kathy Huang
Editors: Andrew Gersh, Amy Ferraris
Composer: Diana Salier
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