The movie I chose to write about was “Better Luck Tomorrow.” It takes place in the suburbs of Southern California. The main characters are Chinese-American high school students. At first, these characters seem like your typical Asian-American students: smart, straight-A’s, planning to go to a good college. As the film goes on, however, we learn that things are not always what they seem.
The film seems to be mostly formalistic, with some realism. Some of the everyday events are shown in a realistic manner, but there are many scenes that are definitely formalistic. An example of such a scene would be when Ben and Steve are at the batting cages. They are high and everything is getting out of control in their lives, and the filming reflects this with the lights moving, the camera going back and forth, and a general sense of chaos.
Another scene that is like this is the scene at the winter formal with Stephanie and Ben. The lights are moving all around them, and everything is blurry, but they are dancing slowly and seem to be unaware of their surroundings. This scene uses a medium two-shot. It shows Ben and Stephanie from the waist-up, and everything else is blurry and unclear.
Another aspect that leads me to label this film as primarily formalistic is the fast-motion shots that occur throughout the film. These suggest that time is going by at a faster pace then the rest of the scenes. They also show that things are getting more and more out of control as more of these fast-motion shots take place.
Ben was constantly preparing for the SAT. He would choose one word, and go over in repeatedly all day in an attempt to learn it. Each time a new word was shown on the screen, it would be related to the current plot. I thought this was an interesting way of incorporating his SAT preparation into the movie.
The aesthetic of the film was that of the pretty Southern California suburb in which they lived. Their neighborhood, their lives, even the characters themselves seemed to be “perfect” at the beginning of the film. One thing that I would was ironic, though, was that in their perfect neighborhood with every house the same, there was an oil pump. I guess it’s just a “sign of the times.” This also might be meant as a reference to the capitalism that drives this neighborhood.
The characters in the film seem to be suffering from conspicuous consumptionism. They live in such a consumption and consumer-driven world that they have almost no choice but to fall into this trap. When they start doing all of their scams and make more and more money they get caught-up in their lifestyle. As one of the characters stated, “if it was for sale, you can bet we’d try to but it” (or something of a similar meaning).
Another term that could be used to describe the characters during this time is commodity fetishism. I don’t think that the characters necessarily committed the crimes just for the money, the money helped. I think part of the reason that they got involved in so many crimes is because they wanted to afford the lifestyle that they were getting used to. They wanted the goods, the drugs, and the women. The exchange is an example of commodity fetishism at work.
Throughout the movie, Ben shoots free throws on the basketball court. In the beginning of the movie, when everything is happy, it is bright and sunny with hardly any clouds in the sky. As the movie goes on, and things start to go downhill, the shots become darker and cloudier. This symbolizes the downhill direction that Ben’s life is taking.
Throughout the movie, Ben is shown feeding his fish. This seems to be another indicator of how Ben’s life is going. At the beginning of the movie, he feeds his goldfish while he recites his vocabulary word. When Ben’s life is out of control with the crime and the drugs, the fish are dead. He finds them dead one day as he goes to feed them. I wondered how long they had been dead before he noticed them. Ben was so caught-up in his new lifestyle that I doubt he was feeding them everyday.
When Ben flushes the fish down the toilet it is like his own life is being flushed down the toilet by the drugs and such.
The characters in the film seem to be somewhat engaged in false consciousness. They are so enwrapped in the system of money and all that goes with it that they don’t question whether or not they really need it. They don’t question whether the money and recognition from their peers is worth the toll that it is taking on them. Toward the end of the movie Ben questions this when he wakes up with bloody sheets from his nose, but in the beginning and middle of the movie, the characters are too engulfed in the system to question it.
Toward the end of the film, Steve asks the group to help him rob his parent’s house. He wants to give them a “wake-up call.” He probably just wants some attention. The group thinks that this idea is messed-up and decides to play along at first, but then beat him up to “teach him a lesson.” Ben doesn’t like this, as he has already told them that he doesn’t want to be involved in this crime anymore, but he agrees to be the lookout
guy. As he is waiting outside, he hears a gunshot. He runs inside and sees Steve with a gun and the group struggling to get it away from him. The camera angle during this scene is looking down at Steve and the others. Ben bashes him with a baseball bat once to get the gun away, and when he looks at Steve, he just keeps bashing him until he thinks he is dead. The mise en scene is that Ben is the only one standing, so he looks powerful and in control. Steve, lying on the floor looking up, looks helpless and weak. He is being shot from a high-angle. This is a psychologically tested technique.
While watching this film, one thing that I observed is that there are no parents. In the entire movie, not one parent is shown. There is some talk of parents, but mainly just saying that “as long as the grades as there,” they can do whatever they want. The characters don’t have any authority figures at all. I think part of this is just showing that the parents are perhaps wrapped-up in their own lives. It could mean that the kids just don’t think about their parents much and live completely separate lives from their parents. I found it slightly disturbing, though, that even when Virgil shot himself in the head and was in the hospital, there were no parents. I would think that even the most vacant parent would show-up in that situation.
Perhaps if there was more parental involvement or at least some presence, some of the trouble that they got into could have been avoided. When Steve asks the group to rob his house, he probably just wants some attention. This is a pretty bratty thing to do, but I do understand his need for attention. This could be another way of showing how consumer-driven they all are. The parents are busy working (presumably) and earning money to support the family. To buy all of the
things that they think matter in life. In reality, though, maybe all the children want is to spend some time with their parents.
A reoccurring theme throughout the movie is that there is “no turning back.” In the last scene of the movie, Stephanie asks Ben if he’s ever made decision that lead to other decisions, and then you don’t know why you made those decisions to begin with. Ben knows exactly how that feels, because that describes his life in the movie. There are several times throughout the movie when a character says, “no turning back.”
Once you make a choice such as commit crimes or kill someone, you can’t take it back, and once you’re used to doing such things, it is hard to stop and go back to living as you did before.
I enjoyed watching this movie. It focuses on teenagers, but it isn’t your typical “teen film.” This film is darker and more realistic than that. Not all students are involved in crime, drugs, and so on, but no all students are perfect little students who care about nothing but the prom, either. I found this movie to be exciting and a refreshing change from the average “teen movie.”