In 2004, film critic Roger Ebert reviewed The Perfect Score, a teen comedy about high school students trying to steal the answers to the SAT. In his review, he compared the widely released Perfect Score to the limited release Better Luck Tomorrow (2003). Ebert does not mention that both films were released by the same companies: Paramount Pictures and MTV films.
All of these stories focused on a group of teenagers trying to get away with something illegal. Throughout each film, a male narrator discusses what these actions mean to them and why they have chosen to behave this way. In the directors’ chair of each film sat two filmmakers who now sit at high places in the entertainment industry.
‘The Perfect Score’
The Perfect Score centers around Kyle (Chris Evans), a high school senior who wants to be an architect. When his SAT score proves too low, Kyle decides to break into the testing center to steal the answers with the help of his friend Matty (Bryan Greenberg) and their acquaintance Francesca (Scarlett Johansson).
However, when things do not go according to plan, they must figure out a new way to obtain the answers. They end up adding star athlete Desmond (Darius Miles), stoner Roy (Leonardo Nam), and overachiever Anna Ross (Erika Chrensen).
According to co-writer Mark Schwahn, The Perfect Score came from an idea by executive producer Roger Birnbuam. Although they started with Birnbaum’s idea, director Brian Robbins and Schwahn helped to shape the material considerably.
Throughout his career, Brian Robbins has focused on projects aimed at families and youth. He began his career as an actor, eventually becoming a regular on Head of the Class (1986-1991). As a producer and director, he created All That (1994-2005), which led to a spinoff, Kenan & Kel (1996-2000). He also directed the Kenan & Kel movie Good Burger (1997). At the current moment, Robbins serves as the president of Nickelodeon.
In Robbins’ body of work, The Perfect Score probably bears the closest resemblance to Varsity Blues (1999). That film focused on high school seniors on a small town Texas football team. A mixture of R-rated teenage sex comedy and heartfelt drama, the film alternates between serious scenes about football and wacky sexual hijinks between the immature leads of the film. Robbins says that the film started out as more of a teen sex comedy before turning into a drama. He also says that the opposite thing happened on the production of this movie.
For better or worse, Schwahn has a much different impact on this film. Perhaps best known as the showrunner for the series One Tree Hill (2003-2012), Schwahn incorporated his love of basketball into this movie by writing a basketball player as a character. Schwahn also wrote Coach Carter (2005). Robbins served as a producer on all these projects.
Years after The Perfect Score, Schwan was accused of sexual harassment and assault by multiple women on the two shows he ran (One Tree Hill and The Royals). He was ultimately fired from The Royals in December 2017.
One of the primary victims of Schwahn, Hilarie Burton, described him as positioning himself as a mentor. When speaking of Schwahn’s behavior, Burton said that he would often manipulate women into getting into fights on the show by playing them off against each other. At first, Burton and her co-stars brushed it off as an awkward person who says inappropriate things until his behavior worsened.
Style of the Movie
The film wears its influences on its sleeve in a very MTV early 2000s way. When describing their motivations, Francesca brings up The Breakfast Club (1985) as a template for the scene. Ebert commented on this in his review of the film.
In the DVD commentary, Schwahn and Robbins talk about making what is basically a stage play visually interesting. They partially did this by having the characters move and having the camera follow them as they talked. According to Robbins, he learned long ago that when the characters stopped, the camera stopped.
As the most expensive of the films discussed here, the film could afford to build many sets. These sets allowed the filmmakers the ability to get shots that they would not have been able to get otherwise. In terms of production design, Robbins and his production designer decided to make the facility where test answers are kept look like the bubble of a test sheet.
World of the Film
The film takes place in an apolitical Hollywood world. The high school seniors plan to go to schools like Cornell and Brown. About half of them seem to come from well off families. At the end of the story, almost every character ends up being massively successful.
Like many comedies, the film presents the stakes of the concept based on a simple binary. If a character succeeds, they will end up wealthy and successful. If they fail, they will end up homeless or impoverished. No middle ground exists.
Similarly, it often sidesteps any real political or sociological point about testing. It presents tests as an immovable obstacle in an unfair system, but also presents this notion as fairly childish by the end. The film presents resistance to the test as silly. When at a basketball game, Kyle asks Francesca why the system tells them to be individuals, then judges them all the same. However, Kyle is a part of a large formation where he is the same as everybody else. The film avoids the racial narrative about testing by bringing up that Asian chicks do the best on the test. In the end, the characters eventually have to sit down and study. All of these little choices undercut resistance to the status quo.
As a film made by men, it primarily focuses on the male perspective. The main stories tend to focus on their goals and dreams, which are pretty clearly defined and understood. Similarly, they have clear arcs.
With these roles, it feels like Schwahn has a lot to draw from for these characters. Throughout the story, the male characters tend to have largely positive relationships among each other. They also have fairly positive relationships with their parents.
As the protagonist, Kyle’s main problem is that the system sees him as too average. He wants to be an architect, but does not have the scores to get into Cornell. Over the course of the film, he will learn to achieve his goal through honest means. In the end, he does not get to go to Cornell, but finds happiness going to Syracuse.
As a character, Kyle kind of serves as the squared jawed protagonist and that’s about it. In a sequence where the audience sees all the characters fantasize about the heist, Kyle’s main fantasy involves getting caught. Other fantasy sequences have to do with what will happen if he does not succeed. Similarly, his mom serves to provide exposition for how the system works, but does not have much personality outside of “caring mother.”
Kyle has a disappointing, yet ultimately positive relationship with his older brother (Matthew Lillard). According to Schwahn, he really wanted to write about this relationship because he had two older brothers. He felt that telling a story about somewhat estranged brothers coming together was one of the more relatable parts of the story.
Matty wants to go to the University of Maryland to join his girlfriend Sandy. When he discovers her infidelity with a college student, he decides to steal the answers to the test in order to get back to his girlfriend. When he learns of her probable infidelity, he immediately blames the SAT (“the SAT is pimping out my girlfriend”). Matty comes up with the idea to steal the answers based on this.
Matty’s story involves him letting go of the past. By the end, he must leave his old girlfriend behind and find love with the more free-spirited Francesca. He also sacrifices himself and gets arrested to save the others. After spending a night in jail “with the worst person he could possibly be,” Matty realizes that the SAT might not be that bad. When discussing what his dreams are, he says that he might want to be an actor.
The star basketball player, Desmond plans to go to St. John’s if his score is good enough. In real life, actor Darius Miles deferred going to St. John’s in order to go to the NBA. Mike Jarvis, the man who recruits Desmond for the NBA in the movie, worked as a college coach at St. John’s during filming, but got fired from his job before the movie’s release.
In the commentary, Schwahn and Robbins describe Darius Miles as a larger than life figure and the film’s perspective does not relate to him as much. When Miles asked why he did not get a fantasy in the story, the filmmakers told him his whole life was a fantasy.
Desmond has an unnamed tough as nails mom (Tyra Ferrell) that keeps a close eye on him. She works 3 jobs to support her family. Schwahn based this character slightly on Miles’s real mom, only to learn that she was not this tough in real life.
A smart yet unmotivated stoner, Roy also serves as the narrator of the film. Originally, Kyle served as narrator of the movie, but Roy tested the movie and provided a more humorous narration for the film.
Throughout the film, Roy needs a maternal figure to replace his own mom, who died when he was 4. He finds this in Desmond’s mom, who scares the character into doing better by the end.
Roy’s Sexualized Behavior
In hindsight, Roy seems almost like the stand-in for Schwahn. In one of his fantasy scenes, Roy hooks up with Anna Ross in a car. When Anna hears this fantasy, she looks visibly scared and suggests they go together. The Camera then rack focuses back to Roy sizing her up. In this one moment, she makes a point that she does not want to be near this guy.
Roy also has most of the outright sexualized or lascivious dialogue. When an attractive employee of the testing company (Vanessa Angel) catches him taking papers, Roy drops the papers next to her and asks if “there is anything else she wants him to do while he’s down there.” According to Robbins and Schwahn, they added this “cheap shot” after Roy tested well.
Throughout the film, the narration Roy relays describes lots of details in sexualized terms. According to him, Matty plans on “hooking up” with his girlfriend at the University of Maryland in the fall. He describes Anna Ross as “a future PHD with a nice A-S-S.”
The character of Roy went through a few changes. The filmmakers knew they did not want Jeff Spicoli from Fast Times At Ridgemont High (1982). According to actor Leonardo Nam, the casting call went through a few different descriptions (at one point it was latino) before landing on “ethnically ambiguous.” As an Australian actor of Korean descent, Nam auditioned for this casting call. Nam won the role when he auditioned while eating a sandwich. The casting committee could not understand him, but they found him funny. Robbins and Schwahn also specifically state that this worked mainly for him.
Unlike the male characters, the female characters tend to exist as either virtuous or sexual. The female leads’ needs involve a change in personality. Innocent overachiever Anna needs to loosen up and enjoy life, while rebellious Francesca longs to become more domesticated. Both end up as a little more than the male leads’ girlfriends.
In the film, female characters tend to exist in the Madonna-Whore Complex, where women are either virtuous or sexualized. Schwahn does not just sexualize women. His writing also suggests that he cannot imagine a world where women exist outside of such narratives. With Schwahn’s writing, female characters tend to not really have strong dreams. Most of the main female characters act to prop up the male characters. In fact, a lot of what defines the female characters is what they do not want.
Female friendship exists superficially at best in this movie. In fact, the female characters seem to have very few positive relationships with each other, unlike their male counterparts. Francesca actively resents Anna because of her position in life. By the end, they come to accept each other, but the film does not really see them connecting again.
Throughout the movie, Anna Ross needs to loosen up and become free with herself. She failed the test because she got stuck on a story question about a train leaving the station. She did this because she imagined actually wanting to get on that train and going somewhere. Before getting talked into stealing the answers, she does not believe in committing any sort of crime, even a victimless one. At the end of the story, she decides to wear a more revealing shirt. Her character change gets noted because she now “looks like a slut.”
Anna has a difficult relationship with her overbearing mother. At the end of the film, Anna tells her mother that she will not be going to Brown, despite her wishes. The film does not provide another dream for her, but she does tell off her mom.
Along with Kyle, Anna represents the other half of the main love story. He asks her in because he cares about her. Throughout the first act, Matty and Francesca both assume Kyle asked Anna to be a part of this scheme so he could get in her pants. By the end, Kyle and Anna kiss on the hypothetical train that the audience brought up at the beginning.
In the story, Francesca seems like both a sexualized figure who wants to be a madonna. In the film, Francesca does not know what she wants to do. Of all the possible dreams she describes, she describes “being a real mom” with the most sincerity. She spends her time working on her gossip website. In the end, Francesca reveals that she saw stealing the answers as a little more than a fun lark.
The film also sexualizes her character the most. The film introduces Anna by booming up from a pair of her cherry underwear (Roy’s voiceover describes her as “forbidden fruit” over this image). After describing her dream of being a mom, she also tags on “or porn” as a joke.
Outside of her sexualization, the film defines Francesca based on the lack of a parental figure. Francesca’s neglectful father has had multiple sexual relationships with much younger women. When meeting them while coming and going from her house, Francesca will make cutting remarks to them. Whereas Kyle reconnects with his brother, Francesca never actually experiences any catharsis or ending with her father.
In the film, Francesca has a fantasy about overpowering multiple guards while dressed in black leather suit. Robbins and Schwan designed this scene as a for shot parody of The Matrix, complete with the famous time stopped shot. Originally, the script called for her to make out with the guard, Robbins and Schwahn decided to come up with something more empowering.
Although the film does not explore this, the story also provides an organic way for Francesca as the potential voice of the narrator. In the prologue, Roy says that Francesca wrote a bestselling book based on their adventures. However, exploring such a storytelling device would mean actually exploring Francesca’s perspective.
At the time this movie came out, Scarlett Johansson had starred in movies with older men, such as Lost in Translation and Girl with the Pearl Earring (both 2003). According to Johansson and the filmmakers, she did the film largely to have fun and be around actors her own age. When she told Schwahn about this, he retorted that she had just done Eight Legged Freaks (2002). After that, Schwahn and the crew also began referring to her as “starlet.”
Like many Hollywood movies, The Perfect Score ends by tying up every loose end in the story. Kyle gets to go to Cornell and start a relationship with Anna. Matty becomes an actor and dates Francesca. Desmond goes to St. John’s and Desmond’s mom helps Roy get his GED. The film ends with Roy becoming a video game designer, surrounded by beautiful women and a large swimming pool.
Although it made more money than Better Luck Tomorrow, The Perfect Score was also not as financially successful. It only made 10 million dollars. For a mid-budget studio film from this time, such a gross is very disappointing. In contrast, the documentary Super Size Me (a film released in 2,000 fewer theaters) made twice what this film made.
‘How to Cheat in the Leaving Certificate’
An Irish film directed by Graham Jones, How to Cheat in the Leaving Certificate (1998) begins with a similar premise. Shot in black and white, the film features a much more lowkey aesthetic. Conversations play out in medium to wide shots.
Although it is 15 minutes shorter than The Perfect Score, it does make a stronger case for why the protagonists behave the way they do. Their schoolmate Cian has committed suicide because his score on the test barred him from achieving his dreams. Similarly, the relationship between the female characters focuses on a more complex dynamic. Elli (Ali Coffey) brings her cousin in because of a certain loyalty to her.
If you want to see that film, I will link it right here.
‘Better Luck Tomorrow’
Better Luck Tomorrow focuses on a group of Asian American students getting involved in crime. Things spiral out of control as their plans become more elaborate. This leads to them ultimately committing murder.
Like How to Cheat in the Leaving Certificate, it takes a more intimate approach to the characters’ lives. However, unlike those films, this film does not focus on one big test that will define the rest of the characters’ lives. This film focuses on the class dynamics these characters face more than the other films.
Part of the film is based on the real story of Stuart Tay. The murder at the end of the film closely follows Tay’s murder and burial in a shallow grave. However, a lot of the individual details and characters come from director Justin Lin and his two co-writers (Ernesto Foronda and Fabian Marquez).
This is director Justin Lin’s breakout film. He financed it using credit cards because studios refused to make a film about Asian characters. When the bank froze his credit card, he decided to call MC Hammer for some financial help. Lin received a generous contribution from Hammer after telling him about his problems. This led to Lin adding tributes to Hammer in The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006).
At the end of the DVD commentary, Lin says that he and the filmmakers will likely not make another film like this again. Lin describes this film as being driven by issues and not capital.
The next film he made, Annapolis (2006), told a much more conventional story about a caucasian protagonist boxing at the titular naval base. The lead, Jake Huard (James Franco), is a driven, persistent young man. It would focus male characters in highly competitive situations, but as more of a sports film. In that film, one of the best recruits is Loo (Lin favorite Roger Fan), an Asian American character. He actually serves as one of the most integral characters in the story. Ebert called the movie “the anti-Sundance movie” and felt disappointed in the familiar storyline and characters.
After Annapolis, almost every project Lin has directed centers around name or brand recognition of some kind. Even his most personal film outside of Better Luck Tomorrow, Finishing The Game (2007), focuses on the legacy of icon Bruce Lee. Over the last decade and a half, Lin has primarily focused on franchise films, such as The Fast and The Furious series. Besides directing F9 this year, he has also executive produced Space Jam: A New Legacy.
Better Luck Tomorrow has a very kinetic cinematic style. Although Lin tends to film scenes in wide shots, he also utilizes many montages, jump cuts, and editing tricks. Lin also plays with casting. In the role of a biology teacher, he casts wholesome TV icon Jerry Mathers.
Although it has this style, it starts with a quiet opening that emphasizes the mundanity of Californian suburbia. The audience hears ambient noise until an ice cream truck drives through. All of that leads to the main characters quietly sitting in a backyard before hearing a cell phone ring. This leads to them discovering a body they buried earlier. The film then flashes back to what happened earlier.
World of the Film
According to the DVD commentary, the filmmakers wanted to present a story based more around class than race. The film has a much narrower group of perspectives than The Perfect Score, it has a more deeply personal and specific perspective.
The film presents characters mainly based on their usefulness at the time. In general, the film’s supporting characters all blend together outside of the main relationships. In the credits, a lot of the cast names are listed under groups. Unlike The Perfect Score, the audience almost never sees adults.
Justin Lin chooses to use both soundstages and real locations. Lin utilizes sets for both Ben and Stephanie’s rooms. The production uses darker yellows and blues for these stages, so they will pop on screen. This makes the locations seem more real on camera than a normal house would be.
With the real locations, Lin chooses many great locations. Many of the outdoor locations have fences that suggest the characters’ feelings of imprisonment. However, not all of the locations are perfect. Unlike the soundstages, some of the real locations tend to look more unappealing on screen due to the fact that they have white walls. The production does manage to make the locations better due to their production design and camera placement.
In this story, five male leads commit crimes. They start out small before graduating to larger scams. All of them lead pretty quiet suburban lives outside of their double life.
As the protagonist, Ben (Parry Shen) provides the audience’s window into this world by serving as narrator as well. The main love story happens between him and Stephanie (Karin Anna Cheung).
He feels great pressure to get into top schools. He is trying to improve his score on the verbal part of the SAT so he can get into a top school. Along with his friends, he also runs many scams on the side. One of his first interactions involves him and his friend Virgil (Jason Tobin) buying a whole bunch of tech, only to return it minutes later with Virgil’s cousin Han (Sung Kang).
In the climax, Ben ends up hitting Stephanie’s boyfriend Steve (John Cho) in the head with a baseball bat in a moment of panic.
As Ben’s unreliable and temperamental friend, Virgil seems like the potential candidate to go off the deep end throughout the story. Ben’s narration describes him as the “puppy who keeps shitting on the carpet.” They know he is unreliable, but cannot bring themselves to get rid of him.
Halfway through the story, the film reveals that Virgil now owns a gun. When the guys go to a prostitute (Ariadne Shaffer), Virgil pulls out the gun on her because he thought she wanted “to play rough.” At the end of the story, Virgil attempts suicide with the gun, but winds up in the hospital with brain damage.
Virgil’s much cooler cousin, Han Lue drives a red sports car. His first line in the movie has him asking Ben and Virgil if “you two ladies are ready.” According to Lin, Sung Kang is not very much like this character in real life. Sung Kang also said that he did not relate to the character as originally written (shaved head Filipino who drives a Honda Civic).
After Ben and Virgil give up selling cheat Sheets, Han and Virgil take over the business. When Virgil messes up his distribution plan and gets Han suspends Han beats him up. Ben speculated that he wanted an excuse to beat Virgil up more than anything else.
When he decides to committ suicide, Virgil invites Han over to his house before shooting himself. Han’s story ends with him overlooking his cousin Virgil in the hospital. The audience last sees him with a shaved head for class pictures.
Although he has a smaller role in this film, the character probably has the longest film career of any character in this movie. Han later went on to become a character in The Fast and The Furious series.
Daric Loo (Roger Fan) is a charismatic overachiever. He has a letter jacket, but it is for tennis and not academics. He acts as the ringleader of the crime ring and the head of the academic decathlon that Perry and Virgil are a part of.
Unlike his friends, Daric’s success revolves on him creating the perfect narrative to lure people into his web. Early on in the film, Daric writes an article about how the basketball team will not let Ben play in the games. He purposely leaves out what Ben’s coach says because it does not fit his narrative. At the end, Daric decides that the group should beat Steve up to scare him.
When all the consequences come down for their decisions, Daric mainly focuses on how all of this will affect him. He asks if Virgil is now “retarded” after he shoots him in the head. When Daric talks about what they are going to do, Ben asks him why he wrote that story for the paper about him. Daric does not answer. In the end, he has largely not learned anything.
Stephanie’s rich boyfriend, Steve, is also driven by success. Unlike Ben, he also comes from a wealthy family. He drives a sports car. In his big scene, he describes his successful life to Ben during batting practice.
Toward the climax, Steve asks Ben and his friends to rob his house to give his parents a wakeup call.” Daric talks the group into taking him up on the offer to betray him later.
This story primarily focuses around Male characters. The female characters in the story tend to represent the goals and ambitions of the male characters. Whereas there was a specific narrative in The Perfect Score, female characters tend to exist here in the periphery of the male characters.
Unlike the male characters, the film has one primary female character, Stephanie. An Asian Girl adopted by a Caucasian family, she is a cheerleader who takes a shine to Ben after becoming his lab partner.
Over the course of the film, Stephanie will become a potential love interest for Ben, but the audience never gets to see a happy conclusion to this story. The audience sees her relationship with him grow over the course of a montage.
According to a rumor, Stephanie starred in a porn film. Virgil gets his hands on a copy of it and shows it to Ben. The audience never learns if Stephanie or not actually appears in the tape. According to Lin, some audience members wanted a clear cut answer to this question. When Stephanie brings it up as a rumor, Ben says he saw it, and she jokingly tells him to shut up about it.
Other Female Characters
Outside of her, most of the other female speaking roles get one scene or sequence at most.
Rachel the prostitute gets one sequence. The audience mainly sees her naked and having sex with Ben. The audience only sees the nudity in a wide shot. Lin also films the scene in a matter of fact way that does not make her skin seem appealing. Nothing about this situation is glorified outside of the way Ben describes it in voiceover.
After intercourse, Ben describes this moment as a beautiful wonderful moment before Daric comes out after having sex with her. After his turn, Virgil goes in and pulls a gun on her, causing them to have to pay her before she leaves.
Unlike The Perfect Score, Better Luck Tomorrow has a much more open ended story. Ben and his friends do not experience physical consequences at the end of the story, but they are haunted by what transpired. According to the filmmakers, audiences did not quite know how to feel about this. Some felt that the story ended with the characters getting away with their crimes.
Although it had a limited release, Better Luck Tomorrow did make back its money due its low budget nature. It cost 250,000 dollars to make and made back 3.8 million dollars. Perhaps most importantly, it became Justin Lin’s calling card for the industry.
Roger Ebert’s Response
Roger Ebert came to the film’s defense multiple times. When another critic came after the filmmakers for making a film “so empty and amoral” for Asian Americans at Sundance, Ebert publicly stood up and defended it.
Both films focus on a group of teenagers devolving into a life of crime.
With The Perfect Score, the audience gets a product made for the teen market. Its target audience has largely grown up and moved on. Almost every actor in it has gone onto a bigger career, with Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson appearing in multiple movies together. Since a man who has a long history of horrible behavior wrote it, it has only grown more uncomfortable over the years.
Better Luck Tomorrow offers something darker and deeper. It examines how a society treats a certain group of people. It launched the career of its director. Over the years, it has gathered a following and even got a retrospective panel in 2017.