Better Luck Tomorrow, about Asian-American high-schoolers making good grades but up to no good, arrives with the furor (albeit minor — a rumpus, perhaps?) attendant a Sundance Film Fest fave. In this case, Internet gossip hounds bark amongst themselves about changes made to the movie after MTV Films and Paramount Classics got their paws on it; they roar about how so pure a film, an audience favorite made by a youngster with fine credentials, was so corrupted by money once it landed with distributors who could ensure that more than the filmmakers' few friends could see the thing. The director and co-writer, UCLA grad and documentarian Justin Lin, doesn't quite see it this way; he phoned last week to insist that MTV gave him just enough money to fix the problems his maxed-out credit cards couldn't correct. Besides, he argued, the changes didn't make his movie too feel-good. In fact, test audiences felt quite awful after the edits that left the film dangling without a happy, snappy resolution.
The movie kicks off like a high-on-high-school comedy, Fast Times at John Hughes High: Straight-A nerds (among them Parry Shen's free-throw-obsessed Ben, Jason Tobin's loose-cannon Virgil, and Sung Kang's tough-guy Han) want letterman's jackets and the babes who come with them; cheerleaders (Karin Anna Cheung's Stephanie) want to be taken seriously twixt pompom routines; would-be bad boys go looking for the sort of danger they see in movies but never experience in boring real life. They're all cruising for a losing of virginity, smoking and snorting for the first time, even committing petty crimes when given the opportunity. Ben and Virgil (I almost typed “Virgin,” since he's always mocked for being one) run a credit-card scam at a computer components store: They buy hundreds of bucks' worth of goods, charge it on Ben's cards, then go back into the store later with the old receipt and some return stickers they slap on a few brand-new boxes they exchange for cash.
They love the high school hustle. “Our straight A's were our alibis, our passports to freedom,” Ben explains in voice-over, as he stashes his wad. Early on, their brand of mischief runs toward the old-school: papering a house, a most innocent pastime. But the boys are too smart for their own good; their intelligence breeds the kind of arrogance that fools the young into believing they can get away with anything as long as they admit to nothing. At the behest of Daric (Roger Fan), who runs every extracurricular club and conducts every after-school con, they begin hustling cheat sheets, selling drugs, using drugs, becoming hallway mobsters who carry guns and brandish them if that's what it takes to foster the myth that the good boys are bad boys not far beneath the surface.
Lin never comments on the need for the outsider to become the insider, but it's clear in the subtext: Ben and his buds are sick to death of being outnumbered, turned into tokens, forced to sit on the bench while the white boys get to start. (This is how Daric lures Ben, then Virgil and Han, into his circle, by writing a piece in the school paper about how Ben made the basketball team just because he's Asian.) It begins at a party, where white jocks taunt till taught a lesson at the end of a barrel, and ends only when the going gets so rough someone's left for dead beneath backyard sod (which is where the film actually opens, so you don't get the wrong idea that what lies ahead has no consequence).
You'll know by the film's close why it tested even worse after MTV and Paramount Classics got hold of it. It gives nothing away to say Lin has borrowed heavily from Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors, in that he suggests sometimes mistakes are made that go without visible punishment. (You get the sense these guys will never even suffer any guilt; that's, like, so suburbia.) But his movie ventures into hyperbole to make a different point: Kids left to their own devices make bad decisions that lead to worse ones that lead to outright tragedy, and if you want to make it out of high school alive you'd better wise up and straighten out. It almost plays like a darkly comic Peanuts special. We never see the kids' parents, and the only adults in the film are disgruntled teachers, among them Jerry Mathers as a biology instructor who'd rather show movies than actually talk to his students. Imagine Charlie Brown swinging a baseball bat at a friend's head and a chain-smoking Linus chuckling maniacally, and you'd have a good sense how Better Luck Tomorrow plays as a cautionary tale taken as far as it will go — into a shallow grave dug in the middle of an otherwise perfect world.