Better Luck Tomorrow
"Better Luck Tomorrow" is a film that plays off the stereotype of bright, hard-working Asian-American high-school students who routinely pull A's in every class, fill up their transcripts and college applications with everything from sports teams to Academic Decathlon to the Beach Cleanup, and need no parental supervision because they're so self-motivated.
And they are, except that this particular group of Asian kids is also motivated to sell cheat sheets, drugs, and stolen electronic equipment. Ben (Parry Shen), the narrator and central figure in this suburban Orange County film, is the classic Asian grind who only dreams of losing his virginity to Stephanie (Karin Anna Cheung), who's the girlfriend of hotshot Steve (John Cho), who even has a motorcycle. Seduced by his friends into making some extra money with the cheat sheets he graduates into selling cocaine - and using a lot of it himself - while at the same time being part of the Academic Decathlon team that goes to Las Vegas to win the national title.
The film begins with the ringing of a cell phone while Ben and his friend Virgil (Jason Tobin) are sunbathing in Virgil's backyard, and a gruesome revelation. Then it flashes back four months to show us what led up to that moment. Ben is a bench-warmer on the high-school basketball team, but when his friend Daric (Roger Fan) writes a story about him for the school paper that falsely implies racism against him he quits the team rather than go along with it. But he's not too straight to take part in the crimes; he even keeps his theft money in a box in his bedroom. Neither he nor we ever see a parent in the film, and even the teachers are far in the background. This is the dark/bright side of high school life in all its contradictions.
The film was directed and co-written by Justin Lin, his second feature, and has the intimacy and believability of someone who is secure in his talent. Though there are a few lacunae and the script has moments that come close to being painfully obvious and clichéd, for the most part we are caught up with Ben and the group as their lives start spinning out of control. I was particularly impressed with the work of Jason Tobin, whose persona here is the loose cannon whose friends must keep him under control at all times.
Parry Shen, as Ben, has the open face and unmannered voice of someone we can identify with; he understands the ambiguity of his life, the opposing tugs that he can't quite deal with one way or the other, and neither he nor the film take the easy way out of a pat ending. "Better Luck Tomorrow" is a sleeper, and in this dreadful spring for studio films it deserves a wide audience.