Better Luck Tomorrow

Writer-director Justin Lin's Better Luck Tomorrow premiered to some controversy at the Sundance Film Festival, where critics in a heated Q&A charged the film with perpetuating negative stereotypes about Asian-American youth. The argument smacks of the occasional flare-ups around The Sopranos, which presents such an irreducibly specific portrait of a New Jersey mob family that it's an absurd leap to consider how its characters fit into an underrepresented ethnic group. Yet with its Kids-like statements about the Youth Of Today, Better Luck Tomorrow cuts a much wider swath, playing so self-consciously and narrowly on Asian stereotypes that it invites a certain amount of vitriol. A shadow version of GoodFellas, from its meaningless stylistic flourishes to its wall-to-wall voiceover narration, the film concerns a group of overachieving Asian-American high-school students whose obsession with grades and extra-curricular activities spin off into acts of petty crime and violence. With near-perfect SAT scores and enough club credits to rival Rushmore's Max Fischer, Parry Shen plays the Ray Liotta of the group, a relatively conscientious senior who "just wanted to go to a good college" the way Liotta "always wanted to be a gangster." But the burden of expectations on Shen and his misanthropic buddies (Sung Kang, Roger Fan, and Joe Pesci-like loose cannon Jason J. Tobin) lead them to turn their enterprising minds to activities that won't appear on their Ivy League applications. Soon enough, their burgeoning cheat-sheet business gets them into riskier ventures like felony theft and the drug trade, giving them a tough reputation in the halls of their suburban Southern California high school. The deeper they get into the gangsta lifestyle, the further Better Luck Tomorrow moves away from anything approximating reality: Only in this hyperbolic universe could the National Academic Decathlon finals take place in Las Vegas. There's a good movie to be made about how cultural expectations affect the identity of young Asian-Americans, but Lin doesn't examine their unreflective drive to achieve–or even acknowledge that they have parents and families. Instead, he frames their lives as if they were li'l GoodFellas, punctuating scenes of coke-snorting, pistol-whipping, and high-stakes scams with gobs of showy technique. Far from serving a cautionary tale, all the slow-motion and 360-degree camera moves have the effect of romanticizing their criminality by making it look cool, right down to a deeply cynical ending that underlines the film's moral bankruptcy. Perhaps the worst thing that could be said about Better Luck Tomorrow is that, on a slow night, it's easy to imagine these delinquents wanting to rent a film just like it.

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