Anatomy of a Scene: ”Try Harder!”


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In our second Anatomy of a Scene featurette, we delve into two key scenes from TRY HARDER! with director Debbie Lum. In this illuminating conversation, Debbie offers some fascinating back story to deepen our understanding of the complex dynamics that play out on screen.

The Scenes:

Scene 1: Winter Holiday at Le Soleil Restaurant - 42:37 – 45:06

Scene 2: Chinese New Year at R&G Restaurant - 51:28 – 53:37

The Setup:

In these two scenes from the second half of the film, Debbie Lum and her crew tag along with Alvan, a senior at San Francisco’s Lowell High School and one of the film’s main characters, during the most intense phase of the college admission process. In the first scene, which takes place at Le Soleil restaurant, Alvan’s mom, Capri, discusses how the college admissions process in the U.S. is vastly different from Capri’s native country of Taiwan. It’s a scene rife with code-switching: between an immigrant parent and her son, as well as between filmmakers and subject.

In the second scene, which occurs the next month on Chinese New Year, the holiday plays a key role in Alvan’s potential prospects for admission to Brown University. By offering the Brown interviewer a small gift, has his mother, accustomed to traditions of gift giving on such occasions, made a serious misstep that could hurt Alvan’s chances? Once again, Alvan is the master code switcher. But this time, he is more assertive in his interactions with his headstrong mother. How this family traverses the minefield of the high-stakes college admissions process sheds light on the hurdles and discrimination that Asian Americans must overcome if they hope to gain admission to America’s most elite colleges.

Listen also to our full-length interview with Debbie about “Try Harder!

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