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Negative Action

Lou Nakasako/Sundance Institute

Try Harder! (2021)

The documentary “Try Harder!” speaks the quiet part out loud: Cards have long been stacked in academia against Asian Americans. Director Debbie Lum presents these inequities as the facts of life that they are, of which non-Asians who benefit must be acutely aware but prefer not to give the game away.

Set at Lowell High School, San Francisco’s elite public high school where the student population is 70 percent Asian, the film shows how kids can accrue a stratospheric 4.7 G.P.A. and still not get accepted by their colleges of choice. Even a white physics teacher, Richard Shapiro, jokes in class about the institutionalized racism known to Asian Americans as affirmative action. Even a non-Asian subject, Rachael Schmidt, openly acknowledges her advantages over the majority of her peers. Stanford University, with an already low admission rate of 4.4 percent, traditionally disfavors Lowell grads, the film’s subjects allege. No one from the Lowell graduating class followed here got into Stanford through early admission.

“Try Harder!” puts human faces on the college admissions fiasco, prompting viewers to empathize with overachievers unaccustomed to failure and whose self-worth is inextricably tied to which universities they get into. Of course, they face added pressures from immigrant parents placing all of their American-dream bets on their offspring.

While the film cements as reality some of the injustices faced by the model minority, there are many more unspoken truths outside the scope of the film. There are fewer paths to success – sports and entertainment have seldom been viable career options – which dictates that they put all their eggs in the basket of academic achievement. As imperfect as affirmative action is, it distracts from how white supremacy is preserved through legacies. But perhaps that’s fodder for another film.


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