BETTER LUCK TOMORROW

For a movie being released by MTV Films, “Better Luck Tomorrow,” a cautionary tale about how a good kid, driven to succeed, can fall from grace by getting involved with the wrong friends, seems awfully uncool. It’s more like an ABC Afterschool Special than a product of the Rock Out the Vote network. The reason is simple: Justin Lin’s picture was actually an independent effort, later picked up for distribution under the music channel imprimatur. But if “Tomorrow” has the feel of an afterschool special, it’s a surprisingly good one–a bit stilted and fairly primitive in execution, perhaps, but still intriguing enough to hold one’s interest throughout.

A good part of the picture’s modest but real success derives simply from the fact that it focuses on a high school group not often treated on screen–high-achieving kids from the Asian suburban class. After a “River’s Edge”-inspired opening in which two boys discover a buried body from the sound of a beeper coming through the ground, the script goes back in time to introduce Ben Manibag (Parry Shen), a likable teen who assiduously budgets his study time and takes on extracurricular activities to bolster a resume that he hopes will get him admission into the best colleges. He does raise some extra cash by scamming computer stores with his best buddy Virgil (Jason Tobin) and the latter’s tough-guy cousin Han (Sung Kang), and he has eyes for friendly but unapproachable classmate Stephanie (Karin Anna Cheung), but basically his life revolves around homework, a part-time job at a fast-food restaurant (which he takes very seriously), and his dogged efforts to improve his free-throw percentage at the basketball court in local park. Eventually he secures a spot on the school’s varsity team despite his short stature, though he winds up constantly warming the bench. It’s this less-than-complete success, in fact, that gets him into trouble when Daric Loo (Roger Fan), a smooth campus operator, writes an article for the school paper describing him as the token Asian on the squad. Ben quits the team, but soon Daric approaches him to make big bucks by preparing cheat sheets for tests. Soon the duo, joined by Virgil and Han, have become a gang, ripping off school property and hawking drugs, while Ben’s ability to keep up with his other work takes a beating. There are quite a few digressions along the way–a subplot about an academic decathlon, an episode involving Ben’s loss of virginity–but the main plot line brings in Stephanie’s boyfriend Steve (John Cho), an arrogant prep school guy whom Ben finds insufficiently faithful to the girl and who approaches the gang with a proposal that ultimately leads to the tragedy disclosed in the prologue.

There are some major problems in “Better Luck Tomorrow.” The script strains credulity at numerous points, from the apparent failure of any school officials to notice how the gang has pretty much taken over the campus to the complete absence of any adult authority figures from the narrative (indeed, the sole grownup shown is none other than The Beaver, Jerry Mathers, who briefly appears as a biology teacher). The structural tactic of dividing the picture into segments introduced by the definitions of words Ben is learning to expand his vocabulary–which, of course, characterize whatever action is to follow–is overly precious. In the last act, moreover, the picture veers into tough-guy territory that comes across like a pint-sized version of “Pulp Fiction.” Still, the picture engages your attention pretty consistently. A good deal of the credit goes to Lin, who’s quite successful at capturing the atmosphere of high expectations and easy privilege which his characters inhabit and comes up with a nicely ambiguous close. He’s abetted by a winning cast. Shen, with his eager smile and boyish charm, is an ingratiating Ben, a fellow one really cares about; Fan makes Daric a persuasive hustler; Cho has Steve’s cynically dismissive attitude down pat; and Kang captures Han’s offhanded nastiness perfectly. With his slightly simian appearance Tobin gives Virgil a manic quality that’s appropriately menacing. Only Karin Anna Cheung, as Stephanie, doesn’t seem able to get a handle on her character–though admittedly the girl seems a trifle opaque.

“Better Luck Tomorrow” is certainly a promising movie that makes one look forward to more of Lin’s work. But it’s also a picture that works pretty well on its own–small, technically modest and somewhat predictable, but with enough of a distinctive flavor to make it worth seeing.