From the opening shot of Justin Lin's new film, Better Luck Tomorrow, we know what we're in for. The long line of cookie-cutter homes glistening in the California sunshine clues us in to the dormant angst that, according to the formula for a suburban coming-of-age drama, must eventually threaten this idyllic scene. When the next shot cuts to two Asian teenage boys casually sucking down cigarettes as they curse the "fucking heat," we also know where the threat will originate. That the boys are Asian, along with the rest of the bored and angst-ridden teens in the cast, is all that separates Better Luck Tomorrow from other films of this genre. Lin makes it clear from the beginning exactly where the film is headed. In the first scene, the protagonist Ben (Parry Shen) and his sidekick Virgil (Jason J. Tobin) follow a ringing cell phone to a buried corpse in the backyard. The film then cuts to four months earlier; an extended flashback chronicles the series of events leading to this gruesome discovery. It is an appropriately quick and witty introduction into the lives of Ben and his gang of ambitious friends, which includes Daric, a popular and self-absorbed overachiever, and Han, Virgil's tough but withdrawn cousin. The members of Ben's exclusive circle both exploit and resent their roles as diligent and obedient citizens of a rigorously structured culture. With good grades as their "passports to freedom," the crew soon becomes involved in everything from an underground cheat sheet exchange to selling and using cocaine. For a while, they relish their new reputations as part of the Chinese mafia. However, things quickly spiral out of control, as Ben begins to wake up with nosebleeds from the cocaine he has been using for late-night study sessions. He soon wants out, but the gang pressures him back into one last scam. Lin's edgy direction gives the film its visual appeal and redeems it from its otherwise hackneyed plot. He adeptly captures the barrage of images that confront his characters as they attempt to simultaneously conform to and resist the expectations placed upon them. High-speed filming makes an academic decathlon meeting look like a wild drug-crazed orgy. Quick editing characterizes the boys' volatile, ever-changing emotional landscape, as they catapult themselves into the adult world of sex, drugs, and violence. Lin's use of stylized violence to depict activities that would definitely not look good on the boys' "college apps" is no doubt meant to shatter the stereotype of the model Asian-American. However, the film's most consciously violent moments do nothing but deliver Ben, Daric, Han, and Virgil back into the more widespread stereotype of overachieving but potentially violent middle-class kids. The characters' inability to focus on anything other than the markers of their dual lives--the Ivy League grooming on the one hand and the increasing lawlessness on the other--reveals a typical self-fixated teenage mentality, and makes you wonder why the seemingly multi-faceted characters of the first few scenes ultimately become so flat.
The film's more effective moments occur when Lin's (and co-writers Ernesto Foronda and Fabian Marquez) storytelling explores the characters' subtly shifting notions of their own identities. After kicking a football player unconscious at a school party, Virgil moves in and out of laughter and tears as he rattles on about his most recent conquest. "I went jihad on his ass," he says, his body shaking with an eerie mixture of power and fear; it is difficult to tell whether he is thrilled or terrified when he wails, "I'm going to juvie." Ben's cheerleading love-interest, Stephanie, seems obliviously eager to prove her intelligence to him. She rattles off her GPA and other accomplishments, but is most successful when she tosses him a stolen CD seconds after they leave a record store and smiles brightly saying, "I guess I was clever enough."
Better Luck Tomorrow strives to be Kids with an all-Asian cast, but falls short of the mark. Without that film's twisted pathos and acrid shock value, it becomes merely another study of the trials of suburban youth, complete with the sense of utter stagnation that so often accompanies the genre. The reason this does not work for Better Luck Tomorrow is that plenty actually happens in the film. Cheating, stealing, scamming, several violent scenes and the finale's two grim crucibles provide ample opportunity for progress. Yet, despite several brutal acts, none of the central characters achieve any kind of transformation. Reports that MTV Productions toned down an otherwise nihilistic ending provide a possible explanation. Like many of its characters, Better Luck Tomorrow threatens to step over the edge, but doesn't quite take the plunge.