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BETTER LUCK TOMORROW

HIGH SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL

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It's another day at another brutally sunny California high school, and Ben, an over-achieving senior with Harvard (or at least Yale) on his horizon, has a lot of stuff in his life to balance.

He needs to study, of course. But that's not easy, considering his lab partner is Stephanie Vandergosh, who's just about the prettiest girl a virgin could imagine doing homework with in her bedroom at night. Too bad she's dating the wealthy hotshot Steve, who goes to a fancy private school. He also needs to hang out with his classmate buddies: Virgil, with acne and spiked hair; Han, who's a bit of a tough guy; and Daric, the suave tennis jock, who teaches the gang how to run harmless little scams using a parental debit card -- until their scams get bigger and bigger.

The fact that these typically spirited and mischievous young people are all of Asian ancestry means nothing in Better Luck Tomorrow, writer/director Justin Lin's very promising breakthrough film (and his second feature). Or actually, their cultural origin means nothing much: Only once, at a party involving alcohol and testosterone, does a brief, racially tinged scuffle break out between a cocky (white) guy and a cocky (Asian) guy. This machismo leads to a moment of introspection and one of several turning points for these basically good boys, whom you want to see get through their dangerous growing pains because they all seem to have so much to offer.

Unfortunately, in his last reel, Lin decides to punish his characters a bit too severely with a plot twist that makes the story begin to feel more like college fiction. But Better Luck Tomorrow is an MTV-produced movie, so naturally it needs to pump things up a bit and still somehow edify its MTV-aged audience. No matter: All that comes before its dour denouement is gentle, warm, funny and charmingly performed by a group of unknown young actors whose agents probably won't be fielding a lot of offers for them. (It's hard enough for two Asian actors to keep working in quality films, let alone half a dozen.)

As with "Peanuts," not a single parent appears in Better Luck Tomorrow, and the only adult who affects the plot is a biology teacher who looks suspiciously like the Beaver (Jerry Mathers). So it's a concentrated world of youth gone wild, albeit in a way that you can imagine being true, even if the actors do seem older than their roles (but then so did Dawson and Joey at first).

Smartly written, and wisely shorn of bloated speechmaking and safe happy endings, Better Luck Tomorrow reminds us -- and apparently, we do still need to be reminded -- that different-looking people are really very much alike when you give them the opportunity. If this is to be the fodder of Generation Next, then chow down. * * *

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