With many subjects coming from immigrant families, Try Harder adds class and generational wrinkles to its inherently tense subject. Alvan’s parents spent most of their lives in Taiwan. His mother takes the lead on molding her son’s future, while his father watches in silence. The latter lacks a high school education and one would think the ascendancy of Alvan after one generation would ratify their American dream, but it’s a source of shame for the family and not something that factors into Alvan’s application process. Instead, his mother misreads the culture and her attempts to bring gifts to admissions officers look more nefarious than they are. Despite all this pressure, Alvan’s a delight, a cart-wheeling ball of energy who could credibly be called the class clown. Equally charming is Ian, a thoughtful kid from a second-generation family who is working hard but has a series of eccentric teen interests that it seems Alvan doesn’t. There’s room for other stuff in Ian’s life. The difference in how Alvan and Ian are treating their pursuits prompts thinking about how they’ll treat their future teenagers, and if America lulls its new citizens into comfort and dulls their striving with each new generation. Meanwhile, the kid who’s taking this hardest is a junior with a disruptive home life, surmising that his life will be doomed to failure if he doesn’t get into Stanford. Whether that’s because he won’t get the job of his dreams or because a Stanford degree will allow him to not live precariously like his father does is a major unspoken premise.
During filming, a beloved physics teacher falls seriously ill. The subjects are all affected by this, but the viewer is immediately asking the question that Lum, a passive observer, cannot. The teacher is a public servant who has not tasted anywhere near the success that the most ambitious students imagine for themselves. As they visit him with balloons and cards, are they thinking of him as a failure? Is his life so terrible because he’s not on a partner track at 25 and a millionaire by 30? Does his lack of stock options speak ill of his character? Why isn’t his life worth emulating? In one lesson, a heavy ball is suspended from a chain and students are told to stand in the exact spot where, when swinging on its arc, the ball will get as close as it can to a student’s face while not hitting it. It’s a nice metaphor that Lum packs in, where these kids’ senior years are spent in imagined danger. Try Harder watches people who treat college admissions like a fight to the death, but cultivates a tone that knows better. Lum functions as her film’s tsk-ing observer, marveling at her subjects’ passion but shaking her head in amusement at how little it’ll matter in a few years. B+