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Better Luck Tomorrow (R)
MTV Films and Paramount Classics
Official Site
Director: Justin Lin
Producers: Julie Asato, Ernesto Foronda, Justin Lin
Written by: Ernesto M. Foronda, Justin Lin, Fabian Marquez
Cast: Parry Shen, Jason Tobin, Sung Kang, Roger Fan, John Cho, Karin Anna Cheung, Jerry Mathers

Rating: out of 5

Here’s the stuff, the real stuff, the reason to keep believing that independent filmmaking has more to offer than the edgy, hipster-ish feature-length commercials being cycled through the “indie” arms of major studios. Better Luck Tomorrow is such a good film that it may start off a whole ’nother wave of crazy bidding as distributors haunt film festivals looking for the next Better Luck Tomorrow.

Better Luck Tomorrow is smart, a product of close observation of adolescents, and like most intelligent films, it raises questions without feeding you answers. The main characters, mostly males, live in generic, affluent suburbia and attend a generic vast warehouse of a high school. They lead the lives of the stereotypical Asian or Asian-American student—high GPAs, lots of clubs and extracurricular activities, part-time jobs, SAT drills—all focusing on the deadly earnest competition for admissions to prestigious colleges. The story kick-starts when over-achiever Ben Manibag (Shen) lets a fellow student copy his answers during a test. Later Daric (Fan) approaches Ben about supplying cheat sheets for profit. Ben knows it’s wrong, not to mention the fact that the payoff—a mere $50 per sheet—is hardly compensation for the possible consequences of getting caught. Still… so bright, so busy, so bored. And a mind is a terrible thing to waste. Ben enters the cheat-sheet business, and soon brings along Virgil (Tobin), a super-smart, socially retarded, wannabe gangster he’s known from elementary school days. With Virgil’s cousin Han (Kang), Ben and Virgil were already running a scam involving buying and returning/reselling electronics, just to fight the ennui.

Daric insinuates himself into Ben’s life, first by writing a school newspaper article about Ben’s position as the token Asian on the JV basketball team, then through the unusual Academic Decathlon (think College Bowl) prep sessions he hosts. Ben’s voiceover fills us in on the evolution of the foursome, who soon come to resemble nothing so much as Asian juvenile goodfellas. Indeed, the movie’s opening, which involves the identification of a mysterious noise, is something of a Goodfellas homage. The similarities continue as these brainiacs progress from the small change of cheat sheets to fencing stolen goods to selling drugs. Who knew academic dishonesty was a gateway crime?

Through it all, the young crooks keep their eyes on the prize. Despite fat wads of cash and a growing and enviable reputation in their school, there are still college applications to be completed and Academic Decathlons to be won. Crime is just another extracurricular activity, albeit one that they, unlike Risky Business’s Joel Goodson, will not parlay into college application material. Furthermore, Ben becomes peculiarly involved with his Stephanie Vandergosh (Cheung), a cheerleader and academic whiz who’s running for student council. Her boyfriend Steve (Cho), one of the gang’s good customers, asks Ben to escort Stephanie to public events like club banquets and school formals. Initially Ben is too weirded out by being essentially contracted to spend time with the girl he has admired, but in time Stephanie and Ben overcome the awkwardness of the situation. Interestingly, we the audience are clearly able to see what this extremely bright and together young man cannot—that proximity to what he very much wants and may not be able to have is messing with him.

Shen plays Ben perfectly, showing us the stolid performance of an academic machine on the outside, and itchy intelligence and confusion on the inside. Ben’s progress through the various stages of criminal development coincide with title cards that define the various words he repeats unfailingly each day to boost his vocabulary for the SATs. In fact, all the actors do well, particularly when conveying the intoxication of stepping outside their acknowledged personas. Tobin is especially good as Virgil, the kind of insecure, all-talk guy who never shuts up; that guy you’re glad enough to run into then are itching to smack upside the head two minutes later. He could easily have come off as some weaselly, Barney Fife joke of a character but for the humanity Tobin gives him.

Eventually, though, living more than one life can get mighty uncomfortable. Even more discomfiting, it may not be possible to take up one’s previous existence. I’ll not say more about the plot, but not because Better Luck Tomorrow is about some huge, shocker of a twist at the end. Yes, there’s stuff that could be given away if I were to continue, but the gift of this movie is who its characters become, or rather, who they are revealed to be, both to us and to themselves. Not that you can necessarily do anything with that knowledge, even if you would seem to have all the luck in the world going for you.

—Roxanne Bogucka


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