Dishonor rolls in teen `Luck'

Youthful energy carries A-student antiheroes

April 18, 2003|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

The college-bound rebels without causes in the sizzling new teen movie Better Luck Tomorrow have gone beyond being misunderstood. They crave misunderstanding. These A-student antiheroes seek trouble in the clean streets of an Orange County, Calif., suburb so posh that their public high school looks palatial. (You have to guess at the luxurious insides of the local private school.) Their consciences have been externalized; they feel that once they make honor rolls and fill their records with after-class activities, they've answered the needs of parents and society and are free to do whatever they want.

They begin to practice anti-social behavior - escalating from credit-card purchasing scams to selling cheat sheets, then drugs - with the same energy that they pursue public achievement. Just when they reform en masse, due more to physical exhaustion than to moral fatigue, they hook up with the worst possible influence: a rich kid whose alienation and ennui go so deep he feels he has to break his family's cycle of happiness. He wants to jolt his parents out of upper-crust complacency by robbing their house. The others want to scare him. Obviously - way too obviously - no good can come of this.

Until director/co-writer Justin Lin navigates that pivotal final turn, Better Luck Tomorrow has a vitality and novelty rare in any youth movie, let alone one that claps fresh eyes on a cliched vision of a model minority. Parry Shen as the central character, Ben, does the near-impossible: At the start, he makes a nice guy dynamic, and as Ben drifts deeper into amorality, Shen insinuates the confusion and longing for transcendence underneath his cool. He's a bit like Harvey Keitel in Mean Streets. As Ben's oldest buddy, Virgil, Jason Tobin takes a character who from the start appears labeled "most likely to self-destruct" and gives him some of the manic dynamism of Robert DeNiro's Johnny Boy.

Roger Fan is silkily Satanic as the overachiever Daric. One of the most daring aspects of the script Lin wrote with Ernesto M. Foronda and Fabian Marquez has nothing to do with the movie's scenes of sex, drugs and violence. It's that Daric writes a school-paper story contending that Ben was picked for JV basketball as a token Asian. Ben's disgust over Daric's willingness to play the race card leads him to quit the team rather than pressure the coach to bring affirmative action into league play.

Yet Ben's revulsion gradually - and believably - turns to admiration at Daric's manipulative abilities and his slick ways at winning everything from College Bowl-type contests to wads and wads of money. The movie fares less well with its depiction of Ben's dream date, Stephanie (Karin Anna Cheung), the girlfriend of that wealthy misfit Steve (John Cho); there's a bizarre subplot about her possibly acting in porn.

But director Lin, who also edited the film, knows how to keep expressing the characters' disordered states without wearying the audience. For example, the device of Ben teaching himself a new vocabulary word each day - and Lin spelling it out in the movie frame for an audience ---both brings home the boy's up-by-his-bootstraps mentality and offers jazzed-up viewers some audiovisual respite.

The climactic three-stage crime digs the movie too deeply into a narrative hole and leads to its ending in midair. But by then, Better Luck Tomorrow has earned audiences' respect - and their belief that having made a good film today, Lin will make even better ones tomorrow.

Better Luck Tomorrow

Starring Parry Shen

Directed by Justin Lin

Released by Paramount Classics

Rated R

Time 98 minutes

Sun Score

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