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Writer-director Justin Lin clearly wanted his second feature to be something mainstream America had never seen before, and for a while it is. Yes, the movie is about affluent teenagers in suburban L.A., alternately conflicted or confident about sex, drugs, and violence. But this is an Asian-American Pie in which all the central characters are first- or second-generation immigrants from somewhere over the International Dateline. The bond these kids feel isn’t exactly cultural: Narrator-protagonist Ben (Parry Shen) is of Filipino origin, most of his cohorts are ethnically Chinese, and his unrequited crush, Stephanie (Karin Anna Cheung), is the adopted Asian daughter of a Euro-American couple. What’s unique about the tale is its overachiever vibe. Parents barely exist in the film—the only notable adult presence is a cameo by Jerry “the Beaver” Mathers as a high-school teacher—but their insistence on top grades and early admission to premier colleges has been internalized by their kids. The problem is that Ben, Han (Sung Kang), Daric (Roger Fan), and maybe Virgil (Jason Tobin) are so smart that they’re easily bored. When not cramming new vocabulary words or practicing for a national academic-quiz contest, they sell test answers, scam a local electronics store, and boost computers from their school. Soon, they’re selling drugs, packing heat, and heading for Vegas—at which point, Better Luck Tomorrow begins to look even more like something mainstream America has seen plenty of times before. Lin is an overachiever himself, having made this technically impressive film by maxing out his credit cards and relying on the goodwill of cast, crew, and the people who lent their houses as locations. But in his attempt to escape the world of Asian-American stereotypes, the director has simply emigrated to a different but equally banal realm.

—Mark Jenkins