Better Luck Tomorrow
by Michael Kurhajetz
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Justin Lin’s first nationally released film, Better Luck Tomorrow, is a coming of age story that is just like the bored and restless high school kids it follows: bursting with pent up energy, but subject to the misguided naïveté of youth as well.
The story follows Ben (Parry Shen) as he cruises through his senior year of high school. He’s an overachiever whose main concerns are getting a perfect score on the SAT and collecting enough extra-curriculars to get into an Ivy League school. He’s bored. He’s restless. Enter Daric. He’s the kind of guy who’d tell your mother what a lovely home she has, and then turn around and tell you he wants to bang her. When he’s not being the president of the debate club, the editor of the paper, and the coach of the academic decathlon team, he’s got a side business selling cheat sheets, and he lures in Ben and his friends, Virgil and Han, to make some cash helping him. Meanwhile, Ben is trying in his fumbling way to woo Stephanie, the smart, sexy cheerleader, away from her boyfriend.
Lin handles this set up with a flashy style that is earned and economical. He’s clearly a fan of the explosive ’90s cinema—Woo, Tarantino, and The Usual Suspects all influence the frenetic cutting, the sped up/slowed down time, and the expressive camera movement of the first 20 minutes. But it’s not the collective ADD of the MTV generation that inspires these techniques. Rather, Lin uses them in the service of giving us just enough information and not a single frame more.
Mr. Lin gets a lot of mileage out of the visual shorthand of the quick cut and the compressed time. He opens with a couple of beautiful, lingering shots on Ben’s neighborhood, then moves to a segment that introduces each of the peripheral characters. It’s a combination of the subliminally-quick snapshots from Run Lola Run and the playfully offhand character introductions from Amelie. This whole section lasts less than five minutes, but all at the same time, it firmly establishes the story in place (suburban southern California), gives the main characters a personality, and breaks down the stereotypes placed on Asian-American high school kids. Sure, they’re all smart, and good at science, but they play sports, and want to toilet paper houses, and lose their virginity, too.
The efficiency of this early portion soon gives way to carelessness by both the director and the characters he’s set in motion. After seeing these kids’ cunning antics, it’s easy to believe they’d attempt to profit off their intelligence by selling cheat sheets. But the delicate balance of plausibility is tipped when the transition from selling test answers to selling (and taking) drugs is handled so nonchalantly, things start spinning out of control for the characters and the movie. Ben becomes voraciously hooked on speed during the four-month time frame of the story, but then drops the habit overnight. No withdrawal, no cravings. Switching from Nike to Adidas would have been harder on this kid. And once the arc of the characters is derailed like this, the eventual climax loses both its credibility and its power to shock.
The narrative sloppiness produces some happy accidents, though. There isn’t a single parent in the movie, for instance (but in a Leave it to Beaver-rific cameo, Jerry Mathers plays the only prominent adult, the largely ignored biology teacher). If Lin wants to effectively break down stereotypes, how can he ask us to assume stereotypical expectations that the parents might place on their kids? Still, their absence manages to highlight how high school kids feel they have to go it alone in their efforts to create their identity, to grow up.
Despite the actors’ general lack of experience, the performances also end up being surprisingly effective. The lovely Karin Anna Cheung is the best actor of the group, being sweet and vulnerable as Stephanie, an adopted girl seeking love and acceptance. And Jason Tobin brings the horny, hyper, and volatile Virgil whizzing to life. But mostly, the boys’ transparent playacting like a bunch of badass teenage Chow Yun-Fats, with their affected swagger and cigarette-flicking cool, stands in for their lack of range at the same time that it poignantly reveals them as lost boys playing the games of men.
As all coming of age stories are, Better Luck Tomorrow is about the search for identity. More to the point, it’s about Ben learning that to find his identity he has to confront then shed the one that’s been imposed on him and start from scratch. That’s a vast sea in which to be dropped, and in the floundering that ensues, there are grace notes and missteps and miscalculations that turn out just right. Ben and Mr. Lin have the good intentions and the foundation of skills to be the person and make the movie they want to, respectively, but not enough of the know-how and experience yet to pull it off. Better luck next time, boys.
Michael Kurhajetz lives in Brooklyn and was recently described as “…an edge of your seat thrill ride…”
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