Ever wonder what all those Asians are really talking about, huddled together in class? Ben (Parry Shen) is a high-school overachiever drawn into a life of academic crime with his friends, Virgil (Jason Tobin), Han (Sung Kang) and Daric (Roger Fan). He is in love with his study partner, Stephanie (Karin Anna Cheung), who is involved with rich, superior Mr. Cool himself (John Cho). All of the characters become drawn into an intense web of ambition and desire against the idyllic background of Southern California youthful privilege.

Better Luck Tomorrow starts with a terrific premise. It's bracingly refreshing to see Asians portrayed for once onscreen as fully assimilated, yet flawed, human beings. This blows wide open all perceived notions of "model minority," as well as more heinous cinematic asexual-nerd stereotypes, in its depiction of these horny, avid boys' manipulative use of their own vaunted intellectual skills and societal access. Writer-director Justin Lin, who possesses a strong visual sense and a bristling surfeit of ideas, pretty much has the viewer in the palm of his hand, but then errs in his climactic scenes with too much garish melodrama. The specific, lightly stylized ambiance he has painstakingly created for his characters' slick-smooth behavior is splintered by the gory death of a key player, plus the suicide of another, and he then settles for a slacker's easy irony and rote sense of foreboding and horror. (Lin collaborated with Quentin Lee on the wacko Asian werewolf film Shopping for Fangs, and therein may lie the clue to this careless, callow emphasis on the guignol.) What began as vibrantly original devolves into something suspiciously Tarantino-like, strained through the hollow nihilism of Bret Easton Ellis.

The highly attractive cast makes the most of their juicy opportunities, which, sadly, will probably not come their way too often in the near future. Baby-faced Shen makes an appealing and, above all, convincing Everyman-with-maybe-genius-intellect and shark-like ambition. Cheung has an attractive strength as a girl-next-door, cheerleader type (except she has been adopted into a white family). (And is that really her in that porno film the guys hilariously discover?) Handsome Cho, who's been a fixture recently as the "Asian guy" in films like American Beauty and American Pie (1 & 2) gives a complex, highly suggestive performance as Ben's "perfect" rival for Stephanie's affections. Fan is a bit smirky, but charismatic, as the high-school newspaper photographer who initially baits Ben about being the token member of the basketball team (who never gets off the bench). Only Tobin strikes some over-the-top hysterical notes as Virgil, who's too much the hapless, eternal fuck-up (and expositional clich) to be believable as a summa cum laude type.

--David Noh