Better Luck Tomorrow (2002) / Drama-Crime

MPAA Rated: R for violence, drug use, sexuality and language   
Running Time: 101 min.

Cast: Parry Shen, Karin Anna Cheung, John Cho, Roger Fan, Jason J. Tobin, Sung Kang
Director:  Justin Lin
Screenplay: Ernesto Foronda, Justin Lin, Fabian Marquez
Review published April 26, 2003

A film like Better Luck Tomorrow goes to show that if you take time and care in developing good characters, no matter where the story takes us, we'll follow, as long as the story stays true to them. Even if the movie were nothing but these guys sitting around the dinner table talking, it would probably be an interesting conversation, but thankfully they are surrounded by an interesting story about growing up Asian-American the hard way in a Los Angeles suburb, where life should be easy and the path is virtually pre-determined. Although morally ambiguous, the themes are resonant enough to warrant the excursion into the dark side of today's youth, showing us how even the best of students with the brightest of futures can be prone to succumb to peer pressure and deviant behavior under the right circumstances.

Although it's an ensemble piece, most of the action centers on Ben (Shen, The New Guy), in the last year of high school, doing whatever is necessary to make himself look good on his college applications. This means getting top honors, employees of the month awards, athletics, and various student committees he may not personally be interested in, but college boards definitely will be. Everything is set, pat and predictable. In other words, boring. He spends time with equally gifted but bored peers, doing things like shoplifting from the local computer store, selling answers to exams and the like, until one day one of them pulls a gun on one of the school neanderthals and they become notorious...and respected.  But is the dangerous road of crime the real way to go to make life interesting, when the safe and sure way of academics seems a sure thing?

Several themes emerge from BLT regarding why a group of young and aspiring teenagers would resort to crime.  The lack of parents in the film might suggest a parental neglect, probably because they view their children as incapable of doing anything wrong and smart enough to figure things out for themselves.  Perhaps it's the feeling like they are stuck in a cycle of having to achieve, and they feel trapped by the high expectations of their parents and peers.  In addition, it might be the feeling of nihilistic boredom that causes them to go thrill-seeking.  More than likely, it's the mixture of all three, and if there's a lesson to be learned from all of this, it's that we all have the potential within us to do bad things, provided the right environment and set of circumstances.

Justin Lin (Annapolis, The Fast & the Furious: Tokyo Drift) directs in a terrific fashion, creating the right mixture of energy and intrigue, mixed with humor and suspense.  The casting is terrific, with realistic performances from all of the cast of young actors, which is crucial when you must suspend disbelief that they are doing things you would never suspect them of doing.  The script is very knowing, full of interesting premises and nice character work.  Perhaps the only thing that may turn off some viewers is that Better Luck Tomorrow is decidedly amoral, not concerned with right and wrong so much as a search for some vital truth, a truth about the pressures of being an overachiever.

Although the cast is mostly Asian-American, the themes have no boundary.  Perhaps it's more resonant in the Asian community, where the stereotypes are that parenting is better and academics are all, but BLT uses these views in its favor.  This is a film that, even if the sense of morals and justice feel mostly vacant, still speaks on a level that young people are likely to identify with.  If anything it is a wake-up call for the audience that the best laid plans are likely to go astray when kids are trying to achieve things that have no personal meaning, stuck in a cycle not of their choosing, and trying desperately to break it before they feel consumed by it.

Qwipster's rating:

2003 Vince Leo