A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this movie.
Encourages hard work, intellectual curiosity, and communication between parents and teens. It also stresses the importance of looking beyond a college's "prestige level" as an indication of future success or happiness.
Positive Role Models
All of the featured students are hardworking, intelligent, and curious and demonstrate humility and empathy. They're ambitious and dedicated not only to their studies but to their families and jobs. The featured teacher is encouraging, generous, and kind.
Featured interviewees include several Chinese American students, as well as biracial (half-Black, half-White) and White students. Although most of the students of Asian descent are academic overachievers, they aren't portrayed as monolithic. Class differences are also explored, since not all of the families are wealthy/affluent. The Black-identifying student is as smart and accomplished as her peers, but she knows that others think she has an "easy" in to elite colleges because of her race.
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Violence & Scariness
Upsetting announcement about a teacher's serious illness.
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Occasional strong language includes one "f--k it," plus "s--t," "goddamn," "screwed," "stupid," "damn."
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Products & Purchases
Brief shots of: MacBook, iPhone, Kit Kat, Carhartt, The North Face, Acer.
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking
Reference to drug-using parent.
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Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that Try Harder! is a documentary that follows a group of students (mostly seniors, mostly Chinese Americans) at Lowell High School, a nationally recognized public magnet school in San Francisco. Directed by Debbie Lum, the film chronicles how these ambitious students deal with internal, parental, and societal stress to land a coveted spot at an elite college. Expect occasional strong language from the teens (mostly "s--t" and "goddamn," but there's one use of a frustrated "f--k it"), as well as references to mature situations -- such as a student whose father struggles with drug dependency and a teacher who announces that he must leave the class after a serious medical diagnosis. But ultimately there are messages about hard work, intellectual curiosity, and communication in this thought-provoking, entertaining documentary that parents and teens should watch at home or that high school counselors should screen for their students. To stay in the loop on more movies like this, you can sign up for weekly Family Movie Night emails.
Is It Any Good?
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.
Did we miss something on diversity?
Research shows a connection between kids' healthy self-esteem and positive portrayals in media. That's why we've added a new "Diverse Representations" section to our reviews that will be rolling out on an ongoing basis. You can help us help kids by suggesting a diversity update.