Justin Lin’s “Better Luck Tomorrow” makes “Boyz N the Hood” and “Menace II Society” all the more tragic. Where “Boyz” and “Menace” saw desperate South Central Los Angeles youths caught in a cruel cycle of drugs and violence, “Better Luck Tomorrow” sees privileged Orange County teens turning to crime because they have nothing better to do.

With all of the opportunity that their Compton counterparts lacked, Ben, Virgil, Daric and Han, the four Asian-American whiz kids of “Better Luck Tomorrow,” are on the fast track to Ivy League educations and six-figure salaries. Their records are impeccable: perfect GPAs and test scores, loads of extracurriculars and all of the community service that colleges are looking for.

But as Ben (Parry Shen) explains in a voice-over, “Our straight A’s were our passport to freedom. As long as we got great grades, our parents didn’t care where we were.” What started innocently as standard high school mischief soon led to cheating, drug dealing and ultimately murder.

Justin Lin composes his cast almost entirely of Asian-Americans, but while there are scattered reference to race – like Daric (Roger Fan) accusing the basketball coach of tokenism when Ben makes the team and the gang being dubbed the “Chinese Mafia” – he never lets race become a focal point.

For the most part, Lin’s characters are average American teenagers. They take on the typical high school movie roles: there’s Ben, the shy kid with a crush on the pretty cheerleader, Stephanie; Virgil, the wise-cracking smart-ass; Daric, the cool overachiever who’s president of all the academic clubs and Han, the hip and mysterious one.

The young cast delivers pitch-perfect performances, creating believable American high schoolers – Parry Shen and Jason J. Tobin in particular.

The film opens with Ben and Virgil (Jason J. Tobin) sunbathing on New Year’s Day, when they are interrupted by a ringing cell phone – but it’s not Ben’s or Virgil’s. As the boys soon discover, it belongs to the freshly buried body in the backyard. A flashback covers the events of the four months leading up to that point, chronicling the group’s transformation from hardworking students to hardworking student-criminals.

With the academic world of high school mastered, the boys engage in some extra-extracurricular activities. They start out with simple credit card fraud and selling cheat sheets, and before long, they’re snorting coke, selling drugs and carrying guns.

As much as they’d like everyone to believe it, they’re not the hardened gangstas from Crenshaw Blvd. You’d never catch Doughboy or O-Dog crying about going to juvey after beating up a snooty jock.

Lin’s smart direction and even better writing allow “Better Luck Tomorrow” to transcend the teen movie genre while avoiding the sort of heavy-handed preaching that usually accompanies youths-gone-wrong stories. If “BLT” is any indicator, Lin will be a force in American filmmaking for some time.

Rating: Four and a half stars.

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