'Better Luck Tomorrow': as American as apple pie

So what's up with 2003? If we include the scalding arthouse attraction "City of God" - which is Brazilian, wall-to-wall violent and reaches back into its characters' childhoods and ahead to their 20s - four of the sharpest movies this season have focused on characters in their middle- or high-school years or just out of them.
The other three are the tenderly amazing "All the Real Girls" (reviewed here last week), the fresh, sweet-natured "Raising Victor Vargas" (opening this Friday) and "Better Luck Tomorrow" (now at the Uptown and Varsity). This last comes the closest to being a mainstream film - produced under the aegis of MTV, in fact. That makes its intelligence, complexity and originality even more surprising.
The teens in "Better Luck Tomorrow" are Asian Americans with no interest in being hyphenated. They're as homegrown American as the kids from any other census category for whom pop culture is the only nurturing ethos that matters.
These particular teens reside in Orange County, Calif., in a gated community so stable in its affluence that the existence of parents doesn't have to be validated by onscreen appearances. The only adults we briefly see are a Vegas hooker and a high-school biology teacher (they're not together). Pointedly, the teacher is played by Jerry Mathers, who, in a distant, inconceivably benign sitcom era, enacted the role of Theodore "Beaver" Cleaver.
The Beav wouldn't last a minute in this neighborhood. However, "Lumpy" Rutherford might have been reincarnated as the hero-narrator's best pal, Virgil (Jason Tobin), the class cutup desperate not to be as harmless as he looks. And "Better Luck Tomorrow" inarguably has its Eddie Haskell in Daric (Roger Fan), a sunny sociopath who beguiles his mates into collaborating in sundry, increasingly not-so-petty criminal activities. Scarcely less sinister is his power trip involving ritual preparation for the Academic Decathlon, a kind of super-Jeopardy whereby high-school seniors make their bones for Ivy League recruiters.
These are not your generic movie juvenile delinquents. They're "good kids," first-rate students assured of successful careers who nevertheless can't stop overachieving. That accords with the new stereotype of Asian Americans, of course, to which director and co-writer Justin Lin winks acknowledgment. One of the most interesting things about "Better Luck Tomorrow" is the way the film almost entirely declines to mention ethnicity, yet slyly deploys it as a running, deadpan gag.
The movie's other sly pretense is its successful masquerade as a high-school comedy. "Better Luck Tomorrow" is, to be sure, frequently laugh-out-loud funny, with great lines, acute social satire, visual wit and excellent judgment about how much weight to allow any scene or encounter in the shrewdly calibrated balance of the film overall. And there's a well-developed, credibly evolving relationship - lab partners, platonic friends, possible lovers - between our low-key hero Ben (Parry Shen, who has some of the sweet gravity and resignation of B.D. Wong) and the glamorous Stephanie Vandergosh (Karin Anna Cheung), who's cool with being the adoptive daughter in a household of blond Caucasians
and a fantasy-figure rumored to have done a
porn video.
Still, there's a darkness gathering, to which the first scene - the first gag - alerted us: Two teens, lolling in the afternoon sun, are disturbed by a ringing cell phone. "Not mine." "Me neither." It's coming from under the lawn beneath their lounge chairs, where the phone's been inadvertently buried along with the corpse of its owner. The rest of the movie is a flashback taking us up to that moment. Justin Lin is a clever and assured enough filmmaker to lull us into forgetting, for much of the intervening hour and a half, what journey we've embarked on.

Freelance writer Richard T. Jameson is a Queen Anne resident who belongs to the National Society of Film Critics.
He can be reached at qanews@nwlink.com.
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