Movies We Love: Better Luck Tomorrow

Better Luck Tomorrow (2002)

You know how you make decisions that lead to other decisions, but you don’t remember why you made those decisions in the first place?


A group of major overachievers get bored studying for the SATs, scamming the local electronics store, and attempting to throw 215 free throws a day so they get mixed up in a massive cheating scam, prostitutes and waiving guns in the air like they just don’t care.

Why We Love It

With Sundance this week, I figured I’d do the first themed edition of Movies We Love and pick something that hit the festival. This movie doesn’t get nearly the love and respect it deserves. The script is smart as hell, the acting is full-range, and the subject matter is something that doesn’t appear in film all that much.

Recently, we’ve seen flicks like Big Shot and the higher profile (and far worse) 21 trying to look at teenagers or college students out of control, but Better Luck Tomorrow is a realistic view of how bored and brilliant can turn to a life of excess and violence. It’s not like the angst of the 90s where everyone is damn near exhausted by their boredom – there’s an energy about every character that propels them to achieve far beyond what they’re expected to by society while never living up to the expectations of their parents.

Parry Shen plays Ben, the main character who studies a new SAT word a night (which sets up for a handy sets of chapters for the film) and rebels in small ways behind the shining veneer of perfection. I think a lot of people can relate to that – heading to the field at night to drink with friends, picking up a fake ID, those minor illegal adventures you go on as a kid and never get in trouble for. This movie is a case study on how that can go terribly wrong and lead down a path where egos come with the squeeze of a trigger.

The brilliance of the film is in how fun it is. It perfectly transitions from the endearingly sweet world that Ben lives in – his idiot friends and biggest trouble being the erection he needs to hide in science class for his lab partner (who, high school legend says was once in a porno) – to the tumultuous world of doing bad and getting away with it. This, of course, gives way to doing bad and getting fucked.

Consequences are always around the corner. But as unbelievable as those consequences and situations are, the film shows with care and precision how the small push of a snow ball can turn into an avalanche.

This movie is for anyone who feels like they’ve had undue pressure put on them to achieve without the guidance to really know where to place that achievement. After all, what good is it to work hard to get into an Ivy League school if you’re just going to end up as one of several hundred thousand lawyers and doctors and plumbers that emerge from the higher education system every year? How do you stand out when everyone is telling you that you’re special? Why is that guy aiming a gun at you?

These are all core questions that demand responses. Maybe not that last one, but it was very seriously a question for the subjects that the film was loosely based on: a murder of a student by several honor students that took place in Fullerton, California.

Moment We Fell in Love

The introduction scenes for Ben are great – using a style that MTV would mimic with most of its movies (after buying Better Luck Tomorrow as its first film acquisition). Most everything is made by the chemistry of the group – especially anything involving Virgil (the idiot who gets a true thrill from wielding a gun and ordering prostitutes).

But perhaps the best scene in the film is the confrontation of Ben and Steve (John Cho) – the rich asshole who tacitly draws them into the world of selling cocaine and who happens to be dating the girl Ben wants. It’s as tense as any thriller, augmented by the frustration that simply comes with being a teenager. It’s shot unapolegetically and the actors are allowed to go off the charts as they wheel their way through to an ending (to the scene) that just doesn’t seem possible. An ending that hits you right in the chest.

Final Thoughts

Overall, this is one of those movies that I could watch everyday and never get bored of it. It’s clever, and it exudes this Shakespearean vibe to it regarding the fate of a few characters and the web they’ve woven for themselves. It has a lot to say about youth culture in modern times that I have to assume still fits. But of all the things Better Luck Tomorrow does well, its showcase of raw talent stands out the most. It doesn’t clutter the screen with really well known actors, and director Justin Lin was still fairly young in his craft. It’s that rawness that shines through, making a far more realistic-feeling film about teenagers in desperate situations than any others I’ve seen.

And it deserves a lot more notice than it seems to get.

For more movies that will warm your movie-loving heart, browse through our Movies We Love Archive.

A veteran of writing about movies for nearly a decade, Scott Beggs has been the Managing Editor of Film School Rejects since 2009. Despite speculation, he is not actually Walter Mathau's grandson. See? He can't even spell his name right.

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