There is certainly a very good film within Better Days. Arguably, in fact, there are three: a story about high school bullying, a story about the high pressure put upon teenagers to perform well academically, and a love story about two teenaged outsiders finding strength in each other's presence. It's not very hard to see how they'd fit together, either, since the screenplay that Lam Wing-Sum & Li Yuan & Xu Yimeng have adapted from Jiu Yuexi's novel In His Youth, In Her Beauty (the original Mandarin titles of the book and film are much closer to each other and not really to either English title) basically tells us how: the bullying is an artifact of the pressure, and the outsider boy helps the outsider girl deal with the bullying. Even so, the thing feels appallingly disjointed, with the romantic melodrama fitting in so uncomfortably next to the bullying that it almost feels like a completely different movie has been splices in by accident, like if Twilight and Blackboard Jungle had somehow been crammed into the same body.

Here's something you'll rarely hear me say: it's much better when it's more of a message movie. The opening, when it is most determinedly about bullying, has all of the best material, executed by director Derek Tsang with a raw naturalistic style that leaves very little room for feeling anything but sickened. Things kick off with a peculiar opening scene that finds schoolteacher Chen Nian (Zhou Dongyu) instructing her students in English, drilling them on the differences between the sentences "this used to be our playground", "this was our playground", and "this is our playground", and as the children dutifully chant "this used to be", she gets a funny look on her face and - poof we've jumped backward to her own final year of high school. It's a frankly baffling framing device (and it does come back at the very end, in the form of a mid-credits scene; to me this makes it all the more baffling), and coupled with the generally piecemeal assembly of the film, it does make it feel awfully like the filmmakers are just kind of throwing shit at the wall to see what sticks. But things very quickly snap into focus after that, with the younger Chen Nian walking in an almost trancelike state though a crowd of her schoolmates into a broad empty space in front of the school, where her friend Hu Xiaodie has just jumped to her death; in a particularly sharp and distressing touch,  we don't see what the hell is going on at all, with the dead girl's body kept tastefully off-camera, even as Chen Nian delicately places a blanket over the corpse. The subtlety and emotional understatement of this sequence, not to mention its almost dreamlike detached reality, are found nowhere else in the film, but it does create an awfully good first impression of a movie that's going to be dealing with hard facts in a hard, unsentimental way.

And that carries through Better Days for a bit, as Chen Nian ends up attracting the unwanted attention of Wei Lai (Zhou Ye), the first same mean-girl-in-chief whose nonstop bullying drove Hu Xiaodie to suicide. This gets altogether terrible when Chen Nian admits to the police investigating the suicide about this bullying; she soon finds herself at the receiving end of some profoundly cruel and violent attacks. So far, so good - unpleasant as hell, of course, and there's not a scrap of sophistication in how aggressively the film presents the hardly-controversial idea that bullying is bad. Where Better Days starts to gum itself up is when it begins introducing its other strands. Marrying a story about bullying to a story about the unrealistic pressures placed upon students to excel all the time makes a kind of intuitive sense, combining the over schoolyard bullying of the mean girls with the more insidious emotionally abuse of an adult society that openly views children as barely human and good for nothing more than competing with each other for slots at arbitrarily school, and then the most insidious bullying of all, the self-loathing of the student who has absorbed all of this and manages to convince herself that competing in that system is in fact good.

It makes sense intuitively, but in point of fact, I'm not sure that Better Days actually succeeds in combining these strands; the subplot about Chen Nian studying for her all-important exams takes up a decent amount of screentime without feeling like it's adding anything other than a bit of context to the stress she's already feeling when she runs afoul of the bullies. Certainly, if the film means to serve as an indictment of the academic rat race of contemporary Chinese adolescent culture, it misses the mark

And then there's the matter of the romantic melodrama that gets seeded fairly early, when a gang of hoodlums forces is attacking hunky bad boy Xiao Bei (Jackson Yee, a teenybopper superstar), and Chen Nian tries to stop it. This goes badly for them, but they soon realise that they can rely on each other to be shelter from the crushing  cruelty of the world, and after that they realise that they are both very pretty and at least a little horny. This also fits in with the bullying story, and at a certain point the story makes a stark turn into hothouse melodrama that makes the connection narratively signigicant. Which is already a bit of a problem, since "hothouse melodrama" is hardly a term you'd want to apply to a film that's also a serious, emotionally brutal exposé of the problems of bullying in the Chinese school system. The places the story ends up going are a little ridiculous - clearly motivated and organically developed, but ridiculous even so.

But even that is ignoring the sizable percentage of Better Days' running time that's pure teen romance, and not an especially convincing or resonant teen romance, either. It's emotionally pandering, with its embrace of fuzzy afternoon sunlight and lens flares giving a kind of mock-realist romantic patina to all of it, and a score that unabashedly wants us to feel swoony. And it's not really convincing at the level of character: while Zhou's performance, here and in the rest of the film, is quite good, giving the sense that she's barely able to hold herself together as the stress of her life crushes in from every possible direction, and finding this new boy interesting chiefly because he represents a calming presence, not just because he's cute, Yee is a bit flat and callow, playing his soulful tough kid as a series of postures rather than anything internal. It doesn't help matters one bit that Zhou is almost nine years older than Yee, while the drama specifically depends on him reading as more weathered and worldly.

And when I say that this represents a "sizable percentage" of the running time of Better Days, I should point out that I am referring to a 135-minute running time that exists almost solely because of this tonally awkward love story puffing it up. The  film drags, spending long stretches of time simply reiterating that what we've already seen continues to go on just as we saw it last time; most of the narrative development is bunched up on either end of a fairly indifferent middle. For a film that's betting everything on intense emotions, be they the disgust and anger we feel at the bullying, or the yearning sincerity of the two young people forging their sweet, fragile connection, having such sluggish bloat is terrible; Better Days makes a calculated decision fairly early on to sacrifice intellectual cleverness for a roaring broadside of its feelings, and muffling those feelings by drawing them out too slowly robs it of far too much of its potential impact.