Better Luck Tomorrow

It is perversely fascinating to see a film about what those super-smart Asian kids in high school were REALLY like. “Better Luck Tomorrow” is satisfying in that way, but even without that curiosity factor, it is a wonderful, darkly funny look at wealthy, unsupervised youth.

Our hero and narrator is Ben (Parry Shen), a very smart but otherwise relatively normal upper-class high school student in a supernaturally sunny version of Southern California. He and his oversexed, uninhibited friend Virgil (Jason Tobin), along with Virgil’s coolly dangerous cousin Han (Sung Kang) are involved in some petty white-collar theft, but that’s kept to a minimum. Everything Ben does publicly, meanwhile, is carefully orchestrated to look good on the college applications. He organizes beach clean-ups, plays basketball, offers extra assistance during his job at a fast food place — all to impress the admissions boards.

To that end, he also gets involved with the academic decathlon. The head of that club — indeed, the head of all the clubs, and the B.M.O.C. — is Daric (Roger Fan), another Asian boy with plenty of finances behind him. (“Don’t let the letterman’s jacket fool you,” Ben tells us. “It’s for tennis.”) Daric runs a cheat-sheet scam and wants to bring Ben’s expertise to the table. With Ben come Virgil and Han, of course, and soon the four are filthy rich, extremely popular, and snorting cocaine like it’s oxygen. Grades — originally the whole point of school for these guys — begin to slip, and things spiral wildly out of control.

This is all shown in flashback, by the way, leading up to the first scene, in which Ben and Virgil hear a cellphone ringing from a corpse buried in the backyard. You may rest assured the boys knew of this body and its identity before they heard the phone ring.

Parry Shen is a revelation as Ben, full of charisma, good looks and acting talent to spare. The character remains somewhat aloof as his own life becomes a madhouse, but Shen never fails to engage as an actor. Given the right roles, he could be a big name.

I also like the Virgil character, who is as irrational as Ben is level-headed. One moment Virgil is ecstatic over the foursome having pulled a gun on someone; literally five seconds later, he is in tears about the same thing. He is all the conflicting emotions of teen-hood, packed into one volatile character.

Director Justin Lin (who also co-wrote the script and edited the film) is proficient and exciting, employing jolly camera work and overseeing some highly interesting visuals. He clearly has seen the works of Martin Scorsese and Jean-Luc Godard, and has internalized their finest qualities. Kudos also to cinematographer Patrice Lucien Cochet, who makes sure only the basic Sunday-comics colors exist in this Southern California utopia.

Like his main character, though, Lin maintains a sort of distance from the proceedings. Though the movie is never dull even for a moment, it does feel longer than it is, due in large part to there not being a clear path of plot development. There is little sense of building toward something.

This actually works to Lin’s advantage, though, because when something shocking happens near the end, it truly is shocking. There is no warning — even though in retrospect, we’re amazed we didn’t see something like that coming. The characters’ lives turn to immorality and evil almost imperceptibly, and the movie’s trajectory is just as subtle. It is amusing and entertaining, and more than a little thought-provoking.

A- (1 hr., 41 min.; R, some harsh profanity, some strong sexuality, some graphic nudity, drug use, a scene of shocking violence.)