Parry Shen as Ben Manibag
Jason J. Tobin as Virgil Hu
Sung Kang as Han
Roger Fan as Daric Loo
John Cho as Steve Choe
Karin Anna Cheung as Stephanie Vandergosh
Jerry Mathers as Biology Teacher
Aaron Takahashi as Takeshi
Beverly Sotelo as Clerk
Hollywood makes many coming-of-age high school movies, but seldom do they deal with the Asian community or the violence that many young people find themselves trapped into. “Better Luck Tomorrow” takes a look at both. The movie deals with serious issues and much of the material is grim, but director Justin Lin is able to add enough humor, and not just gallows humor, into the mix that the movie is a joy to watch.
The story revolves around Ben Manibag (Parry Shen) a junior in high school and one of the top two students in his class. Ben is living his life in such a way that everything he does is geared at helping him get into a good college. His best friend, and other top grade-getter in school, is Virgil Hu (Jason J. Tobin). Virgil takes a manic devil-may-care attitude to his academic achievements. He knows he is smart and therefore does not apply himself to anything, assuming that his brain is enough to get him what he wants.
The problem is that they are in middle class suburbia and their lives seem hollow and meaningless. Although for different reasons, they both are ready for a change. This desire to do something new leads them down a path of self discovery as well as a slow spiral out of control.
The characters in the movie are smart, and they are played smart by the actors. Everything seems plausible; no step seems to be overtly out of place. It is easy to see that their intelligence is being overruled by the thrill of what they are doing as well as hormones that they are not yet able to control. Parry Shen is excellent in the role. He is able to convey the angst of wanting to live his life for the moment while feeling obligated to make sure his future is also taken care of. The rest of the cast also deliver solid performances. At the top is Karin Anna Cheung (as Stephanie Vandergosh) who plays the object of all of the boys’ desire with a charm and intelligence that will win her many roles as an actress. There is a cameo by Jerry Mathers. This is easily the best movie he has ever been in.
The movie had a relatively low budget, so there are no high tech computer graphics or other special effects. That is a good thing here since those types of effects draw attention away from the story and this story is a very good one.
Who should see this movie? The movie is similar to “Less Than Zero” and “Do the Right Thing” so if you enjoy that type of character-driven plot and conflict then you should enjoy this movie. There is a little action but not enough if that is the only thing that you are looking for. The love story between Ben and Stephanie is a great one and should appeal to the romantic in anyone. The movie will make you think about the actions that are taken during it, so if all you want is a short mindless escape then you should also pass. There is something here for almost any viewer. The end will irritate some people because it deliberately leaves some questions unanswered but it fits in well with the overall style of the rest of the film.
The movie could end up being the asian american version of “The Breakfast Club”. There are several very talented young asian actors in the movie and I would be surprised if they do not go on to greater success later. So if you like to catch movie stars on the rise, you just might find some future ones here.