Better Luck Tomorrow may be overrated, but it is definitely a fascinating character study, a lot more emotionally satisfying than most recent teen flicks. It has stirred up a flurry of criticism by portraying Asian-American teens who cheat, steal, drink, fight and otherwise behave as badly as all the other disaffected kids in movieland. Of course, critics who suggest that movies must only portray minorities in angelic form are altogether misguided. Films are about life, and life in this country is just as likely to alienate and confuse Asian-American teens as anyone else.
Director (and co-writer) Justin Lin understands that; ultimately, ethnicity is beside the point in his story. His affecting portrait of mixed-up teens headed down a dangerous road indulges in some excessive dramatics, but still rings true to the experience of youngsters growing up without moral anchors. His key character is Ben (Parry Shen), a high school senior with all the right tools for success - brains, affluence, Ivy League ambition and killer study skills. He also has a malleable conscience that allows him to sell cheat sheets to fellow students, and to help his buddies Virgil (Jason J. Tobin) and Han (Sung Kang) run credit card scams. None of the characters' parents ever appear; they trust their hyper-achieving kids based on their academic records. So does everyone else, a fact that leads the youngsters to believe their grades free them from the normal rules of behavior.
Lin does not ignore the fact that his characters are regarded differently from their Caucasian peers; when Ben joins the basketball team after compulsively practicing free throws, he is disgusted when a fellow student writes an article casting him as the team's token Asian. The author of that article, Daric (Roger Fan), is another straight-A student who becomes a friend to Ben and leader of the new pack that makes its name by beating up a thick-headed jock who taunts them with racial insults. From that point on, they are on a downward spiral into drug dealing and dangerous behavior, stoked by money and youthful hormones. Ben's growing obsession with pretty cheerleader named Stephanie (Karin Anna Cheung) - and the illusion of power that criminal enterprise gives him - puts him on a collision course with Stephanie's boyfriend, the richer and more sophisticated Steve (John Cho). Things turn out badly, of course.
The teenagers in his tale have known tragedy and guilt beyond their years, with effects that will not be easily erased. Better Luck Tomorrow uses Asian-American characters, but at heart it is a story about all the lost children drifting into emptiness on a tide of material wealth and moral bankruptcy. An intense, frustrating, and worthwhile journey.