In Justin Lin’s crime and drama filled tale of four friends leaping from the empty uniformity of suburbia to the quick and unforgiving world of daring, lucrative vices, viewers are introduced with themes that intersect notions of age, race, gender, violence, and sexuality. Better Luck Tomorrow is presented on a platform of multiple different topics and themes, however, there is a subtle focus on the idea of belongingness especially with Ben’s character as an ethnic minority during the film. Ben finds that different areas of his life can be affected by his race. This paper will explore the relationship between race and the feeling of being a part of a group, due to external forces and not due to race. While seen to fit a racial quota for the basketball team, a highly visible and managed group on campus, Ben finds a sense of belongingness a vice-filled world with no policing or wide visibility.
Before his induction into drugs and more criminal activity, Ben was situated as a high school senior with a passion for basketball. With his good grades, involvement in school clubs, and dedication to perfect his SAT scores, Ben’s character exemplified the model minority, which represents a sense of belongingness on a broader spectrum of race relations in the history of the United States. In Robert G. Lee’s “Orientals,” the idea of the model minority came to light as Asian Americans demonstrated successful ethnic assimilation into the American culture. Asian Americans were much less associated with the yellow peril, which represented a threat to the nation and familial institution, because “successful transformation of the Oriental from the exotic to the acceptable was a narrative of Americanization” (Lee, 146). Lee’s use of the word “acceptable” illustrates the lack of approval and reception of Asian Americans before the Cold War. Although the film takes place decades later, Ben’s character can be interpreted to exemplify the status of a model minority. The idea of the model minority illustrates the complex relationship between race and belongingness, which is apprehended by productivity and mobility in the country. Asian Americans are recognized through a lens examining their skills and capacity, rather than the color of their skin. In this aspect, Ben seems to “belong” despite the few stereotypical remarks on his race throughout the movie.
As previously mentioned, Ben holds a meticulous love for basketball. Early in the film, Ben’s character is seen shooting free throws hoping to reach a 95.8% success rate. His character makes the high school basketball team, however, viewers quickly learn that his role on the team is taken up more with bench warming than actually playing. Despite his lack of playing time, Ben displays a gratifying sense of belongingness as he walks onto campus with his team shirt explaining how amazing “one piece of clothing can do for your image” (Lin). The uniform and team shirts are symbolic for being part of a group, which Ben longs for, however, he quickly releases those feelings of belongingness as his friend Darric and eventually the entire school believes that Ben’s involvement in the team is to fill a racial quota. Darric begins an interview with Ben asking how he felt about being the “token Asian” on the basketball team and proceeds to explain that the “only reason [he] is on the team is for cosmetic ones” (Lin). The relationship between race and belongingness that Darric points out pushes Ben to quit the basketball team, as Ben resents the idea that people believe his sole role on the team was to be a “token player.” In this scene, Ben depicts his sense of lack of belongingness because he feels as if his acceptance onto the team was due to race rather than his skills and fortitude as a basketball player.
At this point, the film has captured two different areas of belongingness for Ben’s character and it explores a third when the four friends begin to delve into extended criminal activities and other vices, such as drinking, smoking, and partying heavily. The transition that Ben’s character makes can be seen in the confidence he begins to display at school, a place he formerly felt slightly out of place. As he walks down the hallway, he narrates, “We had the run of the place. Rumors about us came fast and furious…and it was fine with us, it just put more fear in everyone. Along with that power came greed” (Lin). His character began to live off a persona that extended beyond his want to belong as he comments on how people began to recognize them and invite them to parties. They were perceived as more than just members of the party but more like the lives of the party, which illustrates the contrasting notion of the theme of belongingness. Rather than Ben wanting to belong, people wanted to belong with him and his group of friends. This feeling is overwhelming for Ben as a sense of belongingness is harder as an ethnic minority to come by.