No parents appear in Justin Lin's penetrating debut Better Luck Tomorrow, presumably because their Asian-American kids - seemingly responsible and perfectionist students at the top of their class - have earned the right to nearly limitless freedom. Their absence, however, is persistently felt, as the very freedom these privileged and gifted kids enjoy is also a detrimental form of parental neglect. Left to their own devices, overachievers Ben (Parry Shen), Virgil (Jason J. Tobin), Han (Sung Kang), and Daric (Roger Fan) find that the only outlet for their increasing boredom and rampant egotism is to plunge themselves into a life of financially lucrative and dangerous hustling, theft, and drug dealing. Their cocky gambles turn them into kings of the high school castle, and as their crime spree assumes near mythic proportions - they soon become known as the "Chinese Mafia" - their sense of moral boundaries disappears like the dead body they've buried in a friend's backyard.

Lin's assured and electric tale of good kids gone bad might be just another run-of-the-mill exercise in flashy adolescent nihilism were it not for the cleverly atypical way in which he confronts the material. By setting his film in a nondescript affluent California neighborhood and focusing on Asian-American characters who have their lives totally under control, the director finds a new avenue into the rather tired realm of suburban exposes uncovering the angst and anger lying just beneath the communities' cheery and docile facades. Ben and his friends are, in some respects, stereotypical well-to-do Asian-American students: studious, motivated, passive, and anonymous amidst their predominantly white classmates. Their lives are dominated by the single-minded desire to get into a good college, and they all work furiously at participating in numerous extracurricular activities (working in hospitals, playing on the basketball team, competing on the academic decathlon team) to bolster their college applications. They're like well-oiled machines, robotically tearing through high school as if the only worthwhile goal in life is a perfect GPA and early acceptance to an Ivy League school, and their wholesomeness is humorously alluded to by Lin's use of Jerry Mathers (aka "The Beaver") as Ben's biology teacher.

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