Before Try Harder came out in theatres, Number Two Son mentioned to me that he had a friend who worked on the marketing of the film, and so we decided to watch it together while he was home on winter break. I once did college recruiting at Lowell High School, drove by it dozens of times, and attended the cross country meet that they sponsor, so I was anxious to see what this view of the students there would reveal. I was pleasantly surprised – while there are things I thought could have been done differently, I strongly recommend it.
The best aspect of the movie was that it engages the audience with the humanity of Lowell’s students. Lowell students have the reputation that they are hardworking Asian robots. I really liked how Try Harder tell the stories of a diverse collection of students. They show Asian students with stereotypically controlling parents but also show Asian American students who don’t have those kind of parents. They follow an African American student and what she goes through in a majority Asian American school. While they show students with tiger moms, they also tell the story of a student whose parents seem totally uninvolved.
What did I think could be have been better? The film continually asserts that Lowell students don’t get into elite colleges because they are Asian, but as one study have points out, Asian students often apply to elite schools even when they are not likely to get in. It is easy to see how peer pressure at a school like Lowell encourage that – I would have liked to have seen the documentary explore that. In addition, the documentary seemed a bit dated, with the action taking place in 2017 through 2018. I can understand the time to get it editted and released, but the some of the students shown could have already graduated by now. It would have been good to see where they are now and how they were affected by the pandemic.
Overall, I definitely recommend this movie. Some of things I mention above might make a good follow up documentary. Number 2 Son thought that it might also be interesting to take a look at other well-known similarly competitive and predominantly Asian public schools, like Stuyvesant in New York.