Paramount // 2003 // 99 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Jonathan Nelson (Retired) // October 30th, 2003
Never underestimate an overachiever.
MTV, in its never-ended quest to completely dictate the lives of American teenagers, gives us yet another film about teenage angst and frustration in high school. Typically, your average high-school movie follows the formula: white/black/Latino kids in suburbia/inner city struggle with sports/authority/race/each other until they win/are accepted/graduate/get the girl. But amongst all the stereotypes there is one group that has always assumed to exist no matter where you go, and typically regulated as bit players if they are even mentioned at all -- Asian-Americans. Stereotyped along with the rest, they are at least entitled to get their own genre movie about it, and now they have, and this one is no after-school special either.
Ben Manibag (Parry Shen, Starship Troopers, The New Guy) to all his teachers and peers seems to be the perfect student. Meticulous, a perfectionist, at the top of his class, headed for an Ivy League school, all the while being consistently named employee of the month at his job and shooting 215 free throws a day with almost a 90% success rate. Needless to say, he's bored out of his skull.
To alleviate their pressures of being good and perfect all the time, Ben and his fellow bored friends lead double lives on the darker side. Petty crime, cheat sheets -- before they know it, they've created their own gang of A+ students living in material excess for as long as they can keep their grades up. They are never questioned, and no one assumes they are any more dangerous than a mouse in a library.
But soon, personal reputation and appearances drive the pressures far past tolerable levels. Ben's best friend Virgil (Jason Tobin, The Hot Chick) becomes obsessed with power, and the boyfriend of Ben's love interest becomes melancholy in his pursuit of breaking the cycle of the status quo. It is time for Ben and the gang to get their lives back in order before their luck runs out.
This movie wants to say, "There is more to me than what you see. There is more to me than what you want me to be." But more often than not all you can hear is, "There is more to me than I don't say there is and because you can't see that is your problem not mine." To say that Better Luck Tomorrow is trying to be more than it is oversimplifies the point, but it is the only fair way to put it.
The actors give a solid performance across the board, but Jason Tobin's Virgil is the most fun to watch, while Parry Shen successfully caries the weight of the film masterfully. Even though Better Luck Tomorrow plays like you would expect a student film to pan out, their performances save this sometimes poignant, sometimes morally bankrupt, sometimes awkward film from becoming a completely confusing mess.
One question kept nagging me throughout the movie: "Where are all the parents?" Throughout it all, no main or minor character over 30 graces the screen, and while this may just be to highlight the youth-centric journey the cast is on, it doesn't bode well for the woefully negligent parents their non-presence generates. Nothing as prosaic as having an adult swooping down with advice that goes unheeded, but some type of presence is needed to balance out the story; otherwise, the main characters never really see their place in the world, or that anything more important exists outside their small realm. But in a sense, isn't that what being a teenager is all about anyway?
The fantastical nature of their world is also a real head scratcher. Why would any academic function on a national scale hold its final competition in Sin City, especially at the high school level? It sets up some plot devices, but what type of parents would allow their kids to go to Vegas, unsupervised no less, and not be the slightest bit concerned?
The movie has some pacing issues that are never resolved. The first third of the film is tightly edited with quick cuts like typical MTV fare. It's fast and it works. Then the movie slows down and never regains its footing as it stumbles through the second and third acts. It briefly picks it up near the home stretch, but runs out of gas by the end, which will probably leave you wanting more. I know I did.
Shot on a shoestring budget and on location, don't expect overly elaborate sets. Better Luck Tomorrow has a real world gritty look to it, but it feels more natural than a slicked up Hollywood set. Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, the colors are bright and sharp, making the picture quality fairly good. The only real drawbacks are some harsh edge enhancements and hot spots in the upper whites.
The sound is only available in Dolby Digital 5.1 in English and sounds fine. The Fight Club soundtrack near the beginning threw me off for a second to what movie I was watching, but it comes across loud and clear on all the speakers. All the levels are consistent between music and dialogue and mix well without having to reach for the remote every other minute.
The only extra feature is a feature-length commentary track that should appeal to aspiring film directors. More concerned with production and technical issues than plot commentary, their bantering should make film students take notes while the rest of wait for some insight to escape instead of camera models and who's high school is whose.
Despite all its shortcomings, I still enjoyed Better Luck Tomorrow. It doesn't be all it can be, but when it hits the mark, it rewards. Save off the purchase until you've seen it once.
Guilty of perpetuating the stereotype of school aged Asian-Americans, but sentence is suspended in light of its pursuit to negate said crime. Court adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 99 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Commentary with the Director and Writers