better luck tomorrow (2003)


director: justin lin

parry shen, jason tobin, roger fan, sung kang

Better Luck Tomorrow might be the first high school film in years to actually seem like it was made by someone who attended school in the last ten years, or decided to make a film not based on the same menu of clichés that were old when Frankie and Annette were on summer break.

Justin Lin’s film is set in the sort of prosperous Southern California suburb where kids with their own cars consider themselves poor, and ethnicity has receded to the point where Asian-American boys use gangsta slang to remind themselves that they’re “minorities”. Ben (Parry Shen) is a straight-A student dismally aware that he’s a bit of a cipher in a school where everyone else is padding their college applications with enormous but meaningless extracurricular commitments.

He’s fallen in with a crowd of academic keeners led by the arch-cynic Daric (Roger Fan), and runs scams on mall stores in his precious spare time to remind himself that he’s capable of more than grinding, joyless striving for an Ivy League placement. “It just felt good to do things I couldn’t put on my college application,” he tells us.

Besides his note-perfect observations of privileged teen life in the sunny, anodyne suburbs that sprawl outside every city, Lin has a great eye for the self-conscious pack mentality that even the smart kids live by, and in no time at all Ben and his friends have moved on from selling cheat sheets to stealing computers and dealing drugs. The geeks have become gated community gang-bangers, and Ben is quickly running scared, while his best friend, the puppy-like Virgil (Jason Tobin), is spinning out of control, giddy and gun-crazy.

Lin’s film is fast and funny, and while it falls apart at the end - reeling away from letting Ben and his friends confront the consequences of their actions - it soars when it reminds us of how great it feels to be bad when you’re young. More than college, the great dream of every one of these kids, mere months from graduation, is getting to leave, and Lin does a beautiful job of showing how, mentally at least, teenagers have already left home. Only at the end did it occur to me that there weren’t any adults to be seen - no teachers, no parents - in a single scene over the film’s relentless hundred minutes.