MTV has a reputation for creating a generation of teen slackers, but its film production arm offers canny portraits of young overachievers who do everything but watch music videos. In Election, Reese Witherspoon's Tracy Flick took her head-of-the-class obsessions to hilarious heights. Now Better Luck Tomorrow gets under the skin of straight-A Asian-American students and their darker impulses.
There aren't enough hours in the day for a young man like Ben Manibag (Parry Shen), who's driven to get into a good college. Ben aces his classes, stays well-rounded in extracurriculars, earns spending money at the mall food court and in his "spare time" takes 215 basketball free throws and learns a new word every day to boost his verbal scores.
Ben hangs around with brainy goofball Virgil (Jason J. Tobin) and taciturn tough guy Han (Sung Kang), who enlists the other boys in minor league scams like buying computer equipment and then returning it to the store for more than it's worth. "I guess it felt good to do something I couldn't put on my college transcript," Ben says. It's also clear that the adrenaline rush their transgression gives them help the boys deal with school pressures.
Ben has a crush on a cheerleader, an adopted Asian gal with the unlikely name of Stephanie Vandergosh (Karin Anna Cheung). But things change for Ben when the school's academic alpha male, Daric (Roger Fan), interviews Ben for the school paper. Daric runs an article describing Ben as the bench-warming "token Asian" on the basketball team, and at the next game, Ben is mortified when he gets a cheering section holding signs like "Let Ben play" and "The Yellow Shadow."
Ben quits the team out of pride, and against his better judgment finds himself drawn into Daric's scheme to write up cheat sheets at $50 a pop. While Daric leads the others in studying and preparation for a prestigious national competition called "the Academic Decathalon," the boys fall deeper into a life of petty crime, which includes selling drugs and playing with guns. But even when they're planning to, say, steal the school's new computers, the gang still organizes canned food drives or picks up litter at the beach. Perceived as straight-arrow "good boys," they get the benefit of the doubt.
Better Luck Tomorrow's co-writer/director Justin Lin includes no mothers or fathers in the film, and virtually no adult characters. We take it as a given that Ben and his friends have hard-driving, Joy Luck Club parents exhorting them to "Study hard! Get in good school!" It's clear that self-discipline and overwork is second nature to them, and by making the film an adult-free zone, Lin can focus on the different teenage cliques.
As a director, Lin himself may try a little too hard. Better Luck Tomorrow has visual panache to spare, but some of the narrative flourishes aren't really necessary, like when Ben learns a new word, the definition flashes on the screen, usually as a comment on the action: "temerity," "quixotic," etc.
Occasionally we're too aware of the influence of other movies, like the famous last shot of The Graduate or a Swingers-esque visit to Vegas. When the criminal behavior threatens to spin out of control, the use of drugs and techno music feels like a junior version of Goodfellas, with Tobin's clownish but touchy Virgil being the group's Joe Pesci.
Better Luck Tomorrow's most impressive moments are its subtlest, especially in a scene with Ben and Stephanie at a record store. Stephanie indicates a CD and shoots Ben a look that we instantly recognize as "Why don't we steal it?" Ben shakes her off with an equally eloquent look. It's a sexy instant of temptation, and we're certain that, attracted though Ben is to Stephanie, he's also thinking, "What if I get caught? I might not get into the college of my choice!"
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