Ben is a perfectionist and overachiever whose tunnel vision leads to nothing less than graduating at the top of his class. As he struggles to achieve social success, he discovers his darker side. He and his friends: Virgil, Daric and Han lead a double life of mischief and petty crimes to alleviate the pressures of perfection. As their adopted identity grows, the gang tumbles into a downward spiral of excitement, excess and fun. Written by
"Better Luck Tomorrow" has attracted much IMDb comment despite being shown in few theaters and then over a short period. Now available in DVD it will clearly garner a slowly widening audience by word of mouth. And it should.
This idie film operates on several levels. The story of a loose cohort of high school high achievers, mostly Asian-American, they are simultaneously self-challenged to make it to the Ivies while at the same time drifting in an affluent bubble of moral emptiness. They volunteer for public service project for points to strengthen their "apps" without any real commitment to the values of service.
Ben is the central character, a youth of untapped ability and boundless promise who seems unable to find any real meaning in his academic goals. The others are a cross-section of teenagers running from the daring to the reckless to the pathological.
He slowly falls hard for Stephanie, a beautiful classmate (actually almost thirty when the film was made but you'd never know it). She has a manipulative, rich boyfriend, "Stevo," and her relationship with him is both resistant and dependent. Girls in this film are ancillary arm candy for the males. Stephanie, who has issues of her own, she refers to her obligatory therapist, knows she's dominated by Steve but resisting submissiveness is very hard. Asian-American or not, Stephanie is a very recognizable teenager. Not too different a story from many high school buddy films, that part.
What is different and distinctive about this story are two factors. The first is that Ben and his friends start running scams at stores to get money for stolen merchandise returned for refunds and then graduate to both selling and using drugs. Their criminal activities become both more sinister and essentially aimless as challenge predominates over possible gain. To describe more would be to give away a genuinely original story line.
The second factor that separates "Better Luck Tomorrow" from the usual run-of-the-mill teen angst flick is the total absence of adult authority figures- parents, teachers (one biology teacher has a brief, colorless classroom presence), police (a sole cop is shown in a couple of seconds in a hallway, almost an opaque shadow). These kids have wheels and money but there's no evidence of their being accountable to anybody. Their ambitions and schemes are their sole interior reality.
Many IMDb comments are from Asian-Americans who view the characters as reflecting their own background. There is a brutal fight scene between the Asian boys and white kids at an unsupervised (of course) booze bash but much of the behavior that escalates into disaster isn't limited to any racial or ethnic group. I'm not even sure I feel comfortable dismissing the behavior as just another example of SoCal teen life.
The acting here, by a cast unknown (check IMDb for their names) is outstanding as is the direction and cinematography that pictures a slightly bleached suburb mirroring the superficiality of the central male characters. Anomie rather than evil is the malevolent controlling force for most of the boys.
A very disturbing film-one that does and should arouse discussion.
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