This weekend, I sat in a theater for the first time in forever, my mask fogging up my glasses with my twin middle schoolers watching a documentary.
Try Harder! follows five high schoolers as they navigate the junior and senior year of high school. This is not just any high school but one that is consistently ranked high in the entire country. That is not all, this high school also is majority Asian American in ethnicity.
This was my second time watching this film by Debbie Lum. I laughed at the same places, held my breath at the same scenes and wished I could gather all the kids in a group hug. I have my favorites amongst the featured children but at the end of the day, each journey was resonant in its own way.
I stand at the intersection of many of the themes at play in the film. First generation immigrant who is not unfamiliar with affirmative action aka reservation. A person who grew up believing that only the Sciences or Math was a path worth walking. As an adult, I see the paths that have been opened to me by taking the torturous Math/Science pathway. As a person who firmly has a passion for the arts but makes her living off something she is not the best at.
The film raises important questions:
Would like like your class to be homogenous?
If you could do something to give your child a leg up in the admissions process, would you do it?
Is affirmative action, racial profiling?
How do we define success and why are we willing to get into debt for it?
Who is the villain in this process? Parents? Colleges? The process itself?
What does putting our children through this pressure cooker of a process do to their mental health?
What are the alternatives?
The film just raises these questions leaving us to ponder over them. It makes us think as parents, educators and as decision makers when we hold the fates of newly minted adults in our hands.
If Try Harder! is playing near you, make an effort to watch it in a theater. If not, catch it streaming on VOD starting this week. If you are unwilling to pay to watch, it will be on PBS in Spring 2022.