A Better Life (Summit Entertainment, PG-13)

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The clashes between immigrant parents and children are a staple of American drama and unfortunately A Better Life has nothing new to say on this issue.

 

Carlos Galindo (Demián Bichir) came to the United States, as immigrants have been doing for hundreds of years, in search of the proverbial better life. No longer a young man, he spends his days caring for the gardens of rich Angelenos in order to support himself and his teenage son Luis (José Julián). Carlos' life is more complicated than many because of his undocumented status (any interaction with a public official could spell disaster) yet he's managed to survive under the radar for years and remains a gentle soul who has invested all his hopes and dreams in a better future for his son.

When his friend Blasco (Joaquin Cosio) decides to return to Mexico Carlos borrows money from his sister and buys Blasco's truck. This instantly transforms him from one among the crowd of men who stand on street corners soliciting the chance to work for a day to the man inside the truck choosing which of them will work for him. On his first day as his own boss he chooses Santiago, an older man played by El Salvador native Carlos Linares, who makes a strong impression in a small part. Santiago previously showed Carlos a small kindness (portrayed in a beautiful wordless sequence) but this time betrays him by stealing the truck. This sets up the rest of the film as Carlos and Luis must venture deeper and deeper into the immigrant underground of Los Angeles to try to get it back.

A Better Life succeeds best when it focuses on Carlos thanks to a multi-layered portrayal from Bichir, a veteran Mexican actor who may be best known to American audiences for his role as Fidel Castro in Steven Soderbergh's Che and as the character Esteban Reyes on the television series Weeds. We are introduced to Carlos in another brilliant wordless sequence which shows us 12 hours in his life, from early rising to a day spent in exhausting labor (but also in community with other migrant workers) to a return home to sleep on the couch so he can rise again tomorrow and do it all over again. He's a very specific individual but also the exemplar for all the people in this country who work hard for very little reward in order that their children can have it better than they did.

One of the more enjoyable features of A Better Life is the way in which it acts as a travelogue of Mexican Los Angeles, showing you glimpses of a world seldom seen by Anglos which has aspects both splendid (a Mexican rodeo) and grim (an apartment crammed with bunk beds housing laborers). The film shows a real respect for the members of this community and tells the story from their point of view, without the interpolation of an Anglo interpreter (there's no equivalent of Richard Jenkins’ character in The Visitor, in other words). Unfortunately the chief relationship in the film, that of Carlos and his son, is predictable without being entirely believable while the main action of the plot is lifted right out of Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves.

The clashes between immigrant parents and children are a staple of American drama and unfortunately A Better Life has nothing new to say on this issue. Carlos believes in the promise of America while Luis, who was born here, has mastered the negative aspects of being an American teenager (sulking, disrespecting your parents) without taking advantage of the opportunities offered him. He's also tempted by the allure of gang life and seems prepared to throw away all the sacrifices made on his behalf. Carlos isn't home long enough to have much influence on Luis (too busy working) and his admonitions ("Do you want to end up like me?") fall mostly on deaf ears. There's little real insight in the telling of this part of the story and the role of Luis is both underwritten and played in a fairly flat manner by the inexperienced Julián (his only previous role seems to have been in a television movie seven years ago).

A Better Life is a major departure for director Chris Weitz, whose previous efforts include New Moon (a.k.a. Twilight #2), The Golden Compass, and (with his brother Paul) About a Boy. Unlike those films A Better Life focuses on an adult character coping with real adult problems and whose life offers little occasion to strew Hollywood fairy dust about. Weitz clearly tries come up with a new cinematic style for this material but unfortunately only made the transition halfway, leaving us with a film which has its moments but undermines them almost as often. In particular Weitz's reliance on conventional story elements, tin-eared dialogue (perhaps it's no accident the film's best sequences are wordless) and a ponderous soundtrack by Alexandre Desplat (which seems to not trust the audience to understand any moment unless its emotional import is spelled out by the score) mar what could have been a breakthrough film about a modest but very American story. | Sarah Boslaugh

 

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