Directed by Justin Lin
Starring Parry Shen, Jason J. Tobin, Sung Kang, Roger Fan, Karin Anna Cheung
It’s true that Justin Lin’s new film Better Luck Tomorrow is a movie about high school students facing various coming-of-age decisions, but don’t be mistaken, this is no Brat Pack movie. This movie has a lot more in common with the films of Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino, than John Hughes.
The movie’s opening even reminded me of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, as two high school students Ben (Parry Shen) and Virgil (Jason J. Tobin) discover a dead body buried in the back yard. “You never forget the sight of your first dead body,” says Ben in narration. The film then flashes back four months previous to reveal the chain of events that led up to the murder. We learn that Ben and Virgil are over-achievers whose high school life seems to revolve around activities that will look good on their college applications. High school comes easy for Ben and Virgil (the question of Ivy League schools is not if, but which one), which breeds boredom; and boredom breeds mischief. Along with fellow over-achievers Han (Sung Kang) and Daric (Roger Fan), they first start selling cheat sheets, and eventually move on to bigger and badder things including theft, drugs and worse. While Ben’s criminal activities continue to escalate, a romance seems to be developing between him and his school crush Stephanie (Karin Anna Cheung), unfortunately she is involved with a rich student from another school (aren’t they all?).
The love story surrounding Ben and Stephanie is charming, but this is not a lovey-dovey movie. Director Justin Lin instead focuses on what happens when teenagers—particularly intelligent and ambitious ones—are not given any guidance, or even any attention (“as long as our grades were there, no one cared”). There are no parents to be found in this movie. In fact, the only adults in the movie anywhere are a few of the school’s teachers (including Leave it to Beaver’s Jerry Mathers) and they more or less exist as background.
Of course, a lot is going to be said of the film’s largely Asian-American cast, but race is not really essential to the plot. Aside from a few one-liners (“so this is where the Asians hang out.” “Yeah, the library was closed.”), Lin doesn’t draw any attention to race. These could be any high school students. In fact, many of the characters reminded me of people I went to school with, which makes me wonder what was going on behind the scenes of my own high school.
A lot of this recognition is due to excellent acting on the part of the mostly unknown cast. I was particularly impressed with Parry Shen who, despite being almost 30 when the film was made, seems to fit perfectly as the honor student led astray by greed, excitement and boredom.
The movie does move very deliberately, slowly building to a climax that seems anti-climactic and the ending leaves a lot of holes not filled in, but I thought it was an intelligent and well made film. I give it a B.