Punctilious is the first of the vocabulary words that appears on screen in “Better Luck Tomorrow.” It is defined as meaning marked by or concerned about exact accordance with the details of codes or conventions. This provides a clue, I think, to the central dilemma this movie attempts to explore. Each of the central characters is bedeviled by the drive to exhibit or accumulate the “right” details, to live by the “right” codes—all in pursuit of the “right” goal: get into a prestigious university. Which club, job, internship, extracurricular achievement, etc., will look best on the college application? Each day is spent, it seems, in service to the future. As a result, the here and now seems predictable and robotic. So, at first, the movie’s message seems to be that a life lived according to the model minority stereotype foisted on (and, as we’ve read, embraced by some) Asian Americans isn’t really living; it’s an imitation emptied of real happiness.
The main male characters’ actions over the course of the movie appear to turn the model minority stereotype on its head. But, they’ve simply embraced other stereotypes—albeit ones that have a “live for today” ethos and, therefore, provide more immediate, if short-lived, gratification. At the end of the movie, Ben seems to think his departure from the straight jacket of the model minority stereotype has resulted in some sort of liberation. He says, “For the first time in my life I don’t know what the future will hold. All I know is there is no turning back.”
But has he found a sense of self that’s not defined by stereotypes? Is he any freer than he was at the film’s outset? I don’t know that there is an easy answer, but those are the questions I was left with after watching the film. One of the last vocabulary words that appears in the film is inextricable. This is a clue to the movie’s larger message: that our sense of self—and our sense of others—is deeply entangled with a variety of stereotypes based on gender, race, age, etc. And that we are always restricted by these in some fashion.
Postscript: I’m not so sure we can presume that Ben, Virgil, Han, and Derek will, quite literally, get away with murder. At the film’s end, Stephanie notes that Steve has only been “missing” for two (or maybe she said three) days. And, Derek is clearly afraid that Virgil, whose guilt appears to have driven him to attempt suicide, might spill the beans. So, I think we are supposed to feel, as Ben does, that anything could happen next. This said, the whole driving off into the sunset with the girl makes the ending seem less ambiguous than it really is.