By now, the decadance of spoiled, mostly white suburban brats has grown beyond cliche and into the realm of an unsavory American archetype. Director Justin Lin combines those same stereotypes with a seemingly parentless suburbia as bland as they come in his shallow but mostly accurate comedy with shark’s teeth “Better Luck Tomorrow.”
The one big surface difference between this film and most others of the high school coming of age subgenre is that the protagonists are all Asian American. Ben Manibag (Parry Shen) is almost too good to be true. Obsessed with good grades, fattening his college applications with job and life experiences, and unofficially breaking the NBA record for free throw percentage, Ben’s future seems bright. Okay, he does have an unrequited crush on Stephanie Vandergosh (Karin Anna Cheung); a cute cheerleader who’s dating the smug, handsome and rich cold fish Steve (John Cho), but nothing’s perfect.
That would also account for Ben’s mixed bag of buddies. His best friend Virgil Hu (Jason Tobin) is a loose cannon making up in raw testosterone what he lacks in maturity and judgement. Virg’s cousin Han (Sung Kang) is a brooding con artist and petty swindler. Finally, there’s Daric Loo (Roger Fan), the kind of guy whose yearbook picture has about forty-seven different extra-curricular activites listed beside it.
It’s Daric who introduces Ben to a cheat-sheet scam. The easy money proves seductive and before you can say “SAT scores,” the foursome is dealing in everything from stolen electronics to drugs. They’r earning more money than they can spend, partying hard and acquiring a reputation as a Chinese Mafia cell, which they do nothing to deny. Humorous as it is to watch, it’s a slippery downward spiral nonetheless; one which Ben eventually recognizes and begs out of…only to get sucked into one last ill-fated job that threatens to destroy his carefully planned collegiate dreams.
“Better Luck Tomorrow” is a rare high school dramedy with some heft to it. Smartly photographed and edited, it manages to walk the difficult tightrope strung between the typically loopy coming of age film and a simmering disaster in the making. Perhaps the most unsettling thing about the film is the relatively little amount of shock, anger or horror we feel when that disaster inevitably occurs. More than anything, it’s a film that both celebrates and shakes its head at the resilience of youth; that enviable ability to bounce back and recover from mistakes without suffering too much damage.
“Better Luck Tomorrow” manipulates its audience, brainwashing them into believing that somehow awful occurences are okay when it involves “Good Kids.” That alone makes this film the most unnerving suburban comedy to come along in quite some time.