Better Luck Tomorrow

Movie review by
Barbara Shulgasser-Parker, Common Sense Media
Better Luck Tomorrow Movie Poster Image
Stellar students turn to crime; violence, language, sex.
  • R
  • 2002
  • 99 minutes

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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

"It's a fulltime job to make people believe you are who you're supposed to be." Everyone needs a wake-up call.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Ben is a bright, accomplished high school student who turns inexplicably to crime. Students run a cheating ring. A student writes an article claiming that the one Asian member of the boys' basketball team, who rarely leaves the bench, is a "token" Asian.  

Violence

High school students beat each other up. A student is killed. Students point loaded guns at each other. Someone tries to commit suicide. Someone is brutally murdered. Someone is beaten with a baseball bat, creating blood spatter. A girl steals a CD called "Music You Hump To."

Sex

High schoolers kiss. Prostitutes service high school boys. A woman's breasts are seen. High school boys talk about sex. In a brief clip, a high school student is seen with two women, apparently in a sexual encounter. No nudity. A high school junior looks at a woman's décolletage when she bends over. Boys watch porn online. One thinks he spots a girl in their class.

Language

"F--k," "s--t," "pr--k," "d--k," "bitch," "damn," "wet," "rack, " p--sy," "f-g," "balls," "boning," "crap," and "hump."

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

High school students use and sell drugs. A student uses a lot of cocaine. He wakes up one morning bleeding from his abused nose. Students drink alcohol excessively. Students smoke cigarettes. Drunken boys vomit.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that the 2002 Better Luck Tomorrow is a hybrid of high school comedy and violent gang story, with tone changing from wry humor to near-horror. The focus is on a community of high-achieving Asian American teens in a wealthy California suburb. With their straight As, extracurriculars, high SAT scores, and academic prizes, they seem headed to the Ivy League, but they somehow find time to steal from stores, sell cheat sheets, and deal drugs, leading to drug use, prostitutes, guns, and heists, all with seemingly no consequences. Beatings, blood, alcohol and drug abuse, murder, and suicide are all part of the plot. Sexual references are rife. Students watch porn. A youth is shown in a sexual encounter with two women. A woman's breasts are seen briefly. Language includes "f--k," "s--t," "pr--k," "d--k," "bitch," "damn," "wet," "rack, " p--sy," "f-g," "balls," "boning," "crap," and "hump." High school students use and sell drugs. A student uses a lot of cocaine. He wakes up one morning bleeding from his abused nose. Students drink alcohol excessively. Students smoke cigarettes. Drunken boys vomit.

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What's the story?

In BETTER LUCK TOMORROW, Ben (Parry Shen) is a hard-working and studious high school junior in a wealthy California suburb. The straight-A student is a member of a winning competitive academic team, on the basketball team, in clubs, and holding down a job. Everything he does is designed to advertise his greatness on his sure-to-be stellar college application. He memorizes a new vocabulary word every day and takes 250 free throws-a-day.  His senior friends are confident of acceptance into one of the Ivies. One drives around in a BMW, another an Audi. So, it's hard to explain how Ben drifts into a life of increasingly serious crime with his friend Virgil (Jason Tobin) and some equally high-achieving but sinister older guys, Daric (Roger Fan), Steve (John Cho), and Han (Sung Kang). As their reputations for selling cheat sheets and dealing drugs grows, Ben basks in the power. He and his gang are invited to "cool" parties with plentiful drugs and alcohol, and available women, sometimes prostitutes. They burglarize their school to steal computer parts. They pull heists at the local mall. They badly beat up a guy at a party. No consequences follow. Although they live in large suburban homes, parents are nowhere to be seen, and it’s this sense of pre-ordained achievement propped over a safety net of wealth beneath them that seems to fuel a kind of baseless invulnerability. Ben starts snorting the cocaine he sells. Someone gives him a gun for his birthday. He longs for the girlfriend (Karin Anna Cheung) of another great student who cheats on the girl and hires the gang to rob his parents' mansion. A violent event shocks Ben, but the film ends in moral ambiguity.       

Is it any good?

This dark coming-of-age tale is best for mature older teens and up. Justin Lin's sleek and skillful Better Luck Tomorrow is a well-contoured fantasy, not about magical worlds, secret gardens, or Middle-earths, but about the place within where demons may lie in those who may otherwise seem to be the best of us. This complex drama turns on its head the stereotype of the high-achieving Asian American high school student, as five youths in this category add senseless crime and violence to their list of otherwise college application-worthy extracurriculars. Characters are well-rounded, and the story moves smartly from one moment to the next in the life of Ben, straight-A, extracurricular king, but if the film has a flaw, it’s that we never really see the reason -- apart from privileged boredom -- for the complete moral breakdown of a cohort of intellectually gifted boys with bright futures. "It felt good to do things I couldn't put on my college application," Ben claims, but this doesn't sound quite convincing enough. Why did it feel good? Just when you think Ben will surely reject all the violence, he kicks a victim his friends are attacking, just because they tell him to.

The tone varies, too, with Ben's cocky narration making it an almost comic companion to The Edge of Seventeen, while the drama mimics A Brighter Summer Day, Edward Yang's award-winning 1991 Taiwanese film about wayward youth of the 1960s. Lin is now largely an accomplished action director, but he manages actors well as performances here are crisp and believable, even if four out of the five male leads were around 30 when they played 16-to-18-year-olds.  

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about what might lead overachieving high schoolers to turn to crime and violence. What role do you think the Asian director and co-writer wanted Asian-ness to play in the movie? Was he trying to play stereotypes of overachieving Asian students against a notion of what affluence, privilege, and high expectations can do to a young person's morals?

  • No parents appear in the movie about teen students. Why do you think the filmmakers chose to create a parent-free world for this story?

  • Why do you think none of the boys in the gang ever consider whether what they are doing is bad or good, right or wrong? Do you find their actions believable? Why or why not?

Movie details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love coming-of-age tales

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