2011, PG-13, 98 mins.


Carlos Galindo: Demian Bichir / Luis Galindo: Jose Julian / Blasco: Joaquin Cosio / Anita: Delores Heredia / Ramon: Gabriel Chavarria

Directed by Chris Weitz / Written by Eric Eason, from a story by Roger L. Simon.

A BETTER LIFE is both a bitterly sweet and a bitterly true slice-of-life drama about an illegal immigrant that believes that working hard and doing what’s right will allow him to eventually achieve "The American Dream."  The film wisely reveals, though, that no matter how determined, hard working, and morally sound one is, sometimes the harsh realities of life come swooping in and immediately impedes your deepest aspirations.  

Some have commented that A BETTER LIFE is more about fundamental everyday survival than everything else, which is true: In its own quiet, observant, and compassionate way, the film understands and portrays life not as a series of personal triumphs achieved via persistent resolve, but rather as a series of unpredictable setbacks.  On that universal level, this simple and modest film speaks volumes. 

That’s the subtle power of A BETTER LIFE: it makes it easy for anyone in the audience to relate to its characters and not on a level of their ethnicity; we empathize with them because of how humanistic they and their dilemmas are portrayed.  The fact that the story deals ostensibly with an almost entirely Hispanic cast and further deals with a family of undocumented illegal immigrants are almost cursory elements here.  We feel for the characters not because they are poor and struggling immigrants, but rather because they want what we all at some point have wanted: a roof over our heads, a means of independently supporting ourselves, and doing what’s right in order to get them.  What’s makes A BETTER LIFE linger with a more resounding authenticity is that it does not delve deep into Hollywood happily ever after formulas or conventions.  The film is manipulative, true, but it does not betray its characters and their day-to-day struggles by painting them in broad or demeaning strokes. 

The essence of the story is its father/son relationship: Carlos (Demian Bichir) is an undocumented Mexican that slaves away day in and day out as a gardener and landscaper for rich Los Angelinos.  He came to the U.S. years ago and has made a home, so to speak, in L.A., I guess if you could call his very tiny and semi-dilapidated dwelling a home.  Carlos’ wife left him years ago and he now has to raise his 15-year-old son, Luis (Jose Julian) all on his own.  The problem for Carlos is that he is trying to relay virtues of working hard and maintaining an ethically strong center to his son, but Luis is a sullen, distant, cold, and increasingly disillusioned adolescent that seems perpetually drawn to the allure of gang life.  Worse yet is that Luis does not seem to maintain a modest level of respect for his father: he barely speaks with him, rarely heeds Carlos’ wishes for him to stay in school, and when he impolitely asks him for money that Carlos does not have, Luis lashes out to his father, “Fine, I’ll just jack an ol’ lady on the way to school.” 

The only thing that keeps Carlos going is an unrelenting willingness to carve out a better existence for him and his son, even when he has to, on a daily basis, keep a very low profile as to not catch the suspicions of the authorities.  Yet, Carlos does indeed work long, demanding, and physically taxing hours while maintaining his anonymity, hoping some day to save up enough money to buy a landscaping truck/business from his boss, Blasco (Joaquin Cosio), who now has enough financial security to leave America and return to his own farm in Mexico.  Despite the fact that Carlos does not even have a license and that a police stop could mean instant deportation, he nonetheless gets a loan from his much better off sister and purchases his sought after vehicle. 



I don’t wish to say too much more about A BETTER LIFE’s narrative other than to say that just when it appears that Carlos’ newfound fortune and initial business security seems encouraging, fate (and some decided bad luck) leers its ugly head and immediately derails his dreams.  It's caused primarily by his own naïve trust in a relative stranger, which has the negative side effect of poisoning his worldview of attaining the American Dream through perseverance, honesty, and grit.  As Carlos’ situation snowballs from bad to worse, the one positive side effect of his dire circumstances is that it does bring him closer to his borderline estranged son.  As the two desperately take a calculated risk to ensure that their family unit does not derail any further, their gamble – although initially successful - gets them some unwanted attention by the law.  Soon, the trivialities of owning a truck and having money mean little when compared to the notion of having your family broken apart. 

What makes A BETTER LIFE so absorbing is how it treats its subject matter with respect, dignity, and understanding and not as caricatures, so much so that the daily trials and tribulations of Carlos and his son have a startling immediacy and legitimacy.  Even when the film unfolds with one overly calculated story contrivance and, once that occurs, you gain a sense of where the story is heading, the film never loses its secure bearings by exploring the frank and harsh randomness that can destroy a man’s meager existence in a heartbeat.  A BETTER LIFE is perceptive enough to understand that doing the “right thing” will not always pay huge dividends for an individual and that taking risks will not always work out in the end either.   

Most of the characters that permeate the story are not squeaky clean and perfect: they have faults and make mistakes.  Central to this notion is the work in the film by Demian Bichir, who gives one of the more thanklessly understated and serenely powerful performances of the year as Carlos.  His performance has to walk a delicate trajectory of evoking a stoic, stalwart, and simple man of virtue, pride, and warmth as he struggles to be a good father and a reliably employed immigrant.  Along the way, though, he still needs to maintain a strong façade of being a man of principle when faced with shattering circumstances beyond his control.  Carlos is a real-life hero that does make cardinal blunders, but what makes him heroic is that he always puts himself and his son first beyond any other imperative.  He’s such a subtly courageous figure that it becomes all the more heartbreaking to witness his life goals come crashing down before him, and Bichir captures this with a tactful emotional economy; he owns the film through every frame he’s in. 

A BETTER LIFE is another remarkably varied choice from its director, Chris Weitz, whose career resume seems like one peculiar curveball choice after another: he has directed everything from ABOUT A BOY to THE GOLDEN COMPASS to THE TWILIGHT SAGA: NEW MOON and, most famously, co-directed AMERICAN PIE with his brother.  After seeing him slum his way through a perfunctory paycheck endeavor like the second-last TWILIGHT entry, it’s especially engrossing and satisfying to see Weitz – keenly talented when he wants to be – return to making something low-key and performance and character driven like A BETTER LIFE.  Most crucially, though, the film does not cheaply politicize the illegal immigration debate: it’s just a richly perceptive, sincerely written, and ultimately heartrending portrait of everyday people struggling with everyday issues while trying to maintain their core values.  

In essence, A BETTER LIFE could have just as well been about anyone of us.

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