A Better Life *** ½
Directed by: Chris Weitz.
Written by: Eric Eason.
Starring: Demián Bichir (Carlos Galindo), José Julián (Luis Galindo), Gabriel Chavarria (Ramon),
Chelsea Rendon (Ruthie Valdez), Carlos Linares (Santiago).Richard Cabral (Marcelo Valdez), Joaquin Cosio (Blasco).
When I hear the constant debate on TV about illegal immigration, I often wonder about whether or not the hardliners – the ones who want to build a giant fence, and defend Arizona’s racial profiling law, understand that there are real people behind all the numbers they spout off. People who come to America and work hard, for little money, doing jobs that most Americans would not do. That these “leeches” and “parasites” are husbands, wives, sons, daughters, etc simply trying to make a better life for themselves. I’m not suggesting that America should simply throw open the gates and let everyone in, but what about some compassion? I doubt the hardliners will watch A Better Life, or dismiss it as propaganda if they do, but I do hope that people do see the film, and watch it with an open mind.
The film stars Demian Bichir, in one of the best performances of the year, as Carlos Galindo. He crossed the border illegally with his wife and sister years before, and had a son, Luis (Jose Julian) in California, thus making his son an American citizen. But now, Luis is 15, his wife is long gone (tired of living on his small income), and Carlos is still an illegal immigrant. He works for another Mexican as a gardener. Every morning, they get into his truck and drive to rich people houses where they mow the lawn, trim trees, do the gardening, etc. His boss wants to move back to Mexico, and is trying to get Carlos to buy his truck, and all the equipment, from him. But Carlos is scared. He got burned by a lawyer who guaranteed him citizenship, only to scam him out of his money. If he were to buy the truck, he still couldn’t get insurance, and getting pulled over for a minor traffic violation could mean deportation. He doesn’t want to risk it – but he is worn down. Reminded of what life will be like if he doesn’t buy the truck – waiting at a bus stop and hoping to be picked by someone who needs manual labor for the day – he relents and buys the truck. And then, the unthinkable happens.
The movie was directed by Chris Weitz, who until know has mainly made larger budget movies. They include The Golden Compass, what I thought was an excellent fantasy film, but no one seemed to agree, so it tanked, and the second Twilight movie, which I thought sucked, but no seemed to agree, so it was a success. Here, he has scaled his production way down, to tell a simple, human story. The obvious inspiration for the film is Vittorio De Sica’s masterpiece Bicycle Thieves, about a father in post WWII Italy, who gets one of the few jobs around because he owns a bike. But when his bike gets stolen, he has to try and track it down himself, or lose his livelihood. He brings his son along on the quest. That is pretty much what happens in A Better Life. And how sad is it, that a story about post WWII Italy can be updated to modern LA, with the only real change being a truck for a bike?
The film provides a nice tour of Los Angeles, but not the LA of big shopping areas, glitz, glamour and Hollywood, but the underbelly of LA – a world where there are a lot of illegal immigrants who keep the city running, although everyone pretends that they do not. Carlos is just one of these nameless faces in the crowd, keeping his head down, doing his work and trying not to get arrested. All he wants is his son to have a better life than he has had. So far, it isn’t working. Luis hardly ever goes to school, and is in danger of falling in with a gang. He sees his father as a loser, probably because he never seems to have any money, although he leaves and comes home from work when it’s dark outside. The movie, which is about a search for a truck, is really about these two getting to know each other. Carlos has done everything he can to raise his son right, but when you have to work so at least 12 hours a day, 7 days a week to make ends meet, it’s hard to be there for your kids. And MTV Cribs and the local gangsters seem so much more exciting than cutting some rich person’s lawn.
A Better Life tells a simple story, but one that works remarkably well. Yes, it is fairly predictable, but that doesn’t diminish its impact. Demian Bichir gives an honest, heartbreaking performance. He has had a long career in Mexico, but the only movie I have seen him in before was Steven Soderberg’s Che, where he played Fidel Castro. It is a an excellent performance – the type that a film like this needs to be as good as it is. A Better Life is a low budget gem.