In A Better Life, a gang-bound son explores honor with his illegal dad. Chris Weitz’s drama gives a blue collar perspective.
Raising a son in East L.A.
Demian Bichir is outstanding as Carlos Galindo, a Mexican illegal in East Los Angeles.
The best actors convey much with their eyes, facial expressions and movements. Bichir (Che; Weeds) paints desperation, patience, wisdom and confusion.
From these contradictions emerges a decent and hard-working gardener who lives in the United States illegally. Frequent close-ups of Bichir propel the drama.
Strict work ethic
In his day-in-the-life existence, Carlos works long hours and sleeps on the couch. He shares a few minutes of quality time with his son Luis (Jose Julian). Carlos lives to work, scarcely realizing when it’s Saturday.
Carlos wears the same jacket throughout the movie, but he is clean. Their meals aren’t homemade, but they are filling. Luis’ mother is gone, but it’s not until late in the film that her absence is explained.
Lure of the gangs
Luis shows growing interest in the gang members he meets at school. His girlfriend Ruthie (Chelsea Rendon) is related to a few of them. Since his father has little money for Luis’ needs, the gangs’ wealth and social standing are enticing.
An early death in the streets is sure to come with that wealth. Weitz portrays the gang members as human and even cautious about recruiting Luis.
Julian gives an excellent, understated performance, especially during a scene in a police station. When Luis gets suspended it’s “no biggie,” he tells his father. The boy considers making a wrong choice for the right reasons just as his father did.
Haves and have nots
Weitz shows an America of the affluent who are happy to look the other way and employ reasonably priced, uninsured yard workers. Carlos and Luis seem invisible in society-at-large.
In one scene Carlos rides home from work, surveying many cultures and ages mingling on the L.A. sidewalks. His sense of isolation and belonging are acute.
Contemporary American features often show immigrants in moral struggles. Ben Kingsley gave a powerhouse performance as an Iranian suburbanite in House of Sand and Fog. In The Godfather, Part II, Robert De Niro plays Vito Corleone, a Sicilian immigrant in New York City’s Little Italy.
The American dream
Prosperity drives these characters. Carlos’ turning point comes when his friend insists that he buy a truck which he cannot afford. Carlos doesn’t even have a driver’s license.
A truck is a necessity. Without it, he must wait for hours in a crowd to compete for day jobs. Carlos finally appeals to his sister, who raids her family’s savings. He promise to repay her.
When the truck is stolen, honor and future are at stake. In one very uneasy scene, Carlos gazes mutely at a police officer, unable to ask for help.
Pursuing a thief
The emergency gives father and son a chance to bond. How Carlos pursues the thief demonstrates a gentle fairness. Gabriel Chavarria plays Ramon.
A Better Life is a pleasant surprise coming from Weitz, who is known for The Twilight Saga: New Moon. Weitz also directed About a Boy with his brother Paul.
The film’s predictable ending gives a sense of “huddled masses,” a seemingly endless stream of people who head to America to improve their chances and their children’s opportunities.
Eric Eason wrote the script based on a story by Roger L. Simon.
The socio-political story is simplified here. Weitz could have reached for even more in the film. These actors were capable of handling it. (4.5 out of 5 stars)
A Better Life 2011 / PG-13 / 1 hour, 38 min
Cast Overview: Demian Bichir, Jose Julian, Dolores Heredia, Joaquin Cosio, Chelsea Rendon, Nancy Lenehan, Tim Griffin, Gabriel Chavarria
Director: Chris Weitz