It starts with a cleverness that soon spills into full-on brain cartwheels: Junior achievers Ben Manibag (Parry Shen) and Virgil Hu (Jason Tobin) hear the insistent ringing of a cell phone, and upon determining that it belongs to neither of them, crawl through lush green grass until they home in on the sound’s source. They scratch and dig under a patch of sod until they unearth the phone and the body to which it’s attached. Better Luck Tomorrow then revisits the previous four months in the lives of a group of would-be bad boy, top-of-their-academic-class, Californian-Asian high schoolers who supplement their 4.0s with 9mms, shown in all their chaotic adolescent glory through Ben’s wide brown eyes.
Ben’s is a spiral that isn’t necessarily downward, and I can’t help feeling that the end of Luck is (against all logic) hopeful. He revels in the thrill of his misdeeds — which range from putting together black-market cheat sheets to be sold in school hallways to petty larceny and beyond — even as his voiceover betrays a slight hint of regret.
But on another level, he’s living out his post-high school destiny: You are not what you wear, or who you hang out with, or your GPA. The fact that Ben is able to have this whole secret life balanced on the underbelly of the high-school edge, that he can snort coke right under the noses of his parents (and, to some extent, because of his parents) prepares him for the world outside the classroom in ways textbook mastery never could: As he labors under his parents’ Asian-American, ace-or-else academic pressure, Ben turns to his own wares in order to maximize his time-management skills.
Ben and Luck work because the things they do and see never seem too far-fetched, in spite of their inherent extremity. Everything that befalls Ben and his friends is plausible, even likely (although the film does end before the inevitable arrival of law enforcement). The performances director Justin Lin elicits from his actors are funny and winning, even if Ben is the only truly textured character (though both Shen and Tobin are first-rate).
Lin’s film captures that special teenage feeling of privileged invincibility and its associated highs and lows, wrapping it in a stylish blanket of techno-rough cinematography and editing that provides a whisper of optimism for our future, for better or for worse.
Erin Podolsky writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].