With A Better Life, director Chris Weitz moves away from the big-scale Hollywood fantasy filmmaking of The Golden Compass and Twilight: New Moon to an intimate tale of the relationship between a father and a son in search of a stolen vehicle. Obvious comparisons to Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief aside, A Better Life is the type of movie I’m surprised hadn’t been made precisely this way before. Sure, there have been many films about illegal immigration as an issue, but to pare the issue down, without oversimplifying it, to a straightforward tale of human relationships and the difficulties of everyday life seems as natural and familiar a story as it is a brave and risky one.
There are certainly bumps along the road of watching A Better Life, but for a premise that easily lends itself to hamfisted didacticism or a superficial, characters-representing-perspectives brand of melodrama (read: Crash), Weitz’s film—while certainly not always subtle—ultimately emerges triumphant and genuinely touching because of its graceful sincerity.
Carlos Galindo (Demián Bichir) has a grueling work life. He wakes up at dawn to toil on the lawns of the rich in Los Angeles and comes home late at night, long after his son Luis (José Julián) has come home from either attending or not attending school. His life is certainly not without risk. As an illegal, his dangerous work isn’t protected by insurance and he can never go to the police if a crime is committed against him. However, his steady routine has kept he and his 2-person family (Mrs. Galindo died well before the events of the film began) afloat. Sometimes there may not be work to be done, but his partnership with a friend at work ensures that, most of the time, he won’t have to stand on street corners waiting for work to come by. Also, while his son routinely skips school and gets in trouble, Luis is smart enough to know not to join a gang, though he’s frequently tempted because he’s ashamed of his father’s hard labor and low status.
Carlos’ work partner convinces him to borrow the money necessary to buy the partner’s truck for, as in De Sica, the vehicle makes ready the road of social mobility. A truck is hardly just a truck, but a path toward a steady income, a better school for Luis, and maybe even citizenship. Through a series of coincidences, misfortunes, and predictable events, Carlos’ brand new truck (and the dream that comes with it) is stolen, and what follows is a father and a son’s search to reclaim their means for (you guessed it) a better life. It sounds cheesier than it is, but the film benefits from its own bare straightforwardness. Besides a healthy collection of false beats in the first act and several moments that are too heavily telegraphed from the beginning, Weitz keeps everything in A Better Life well within the realm of realism and plausibility, and the crux of the film—the journey to retrieve the truck—is at once suspenseful, engrossing, distressing, and heartbreaking. Weitz and writers Roger L. Simon and Eric Eason never give the easy way out, succumb to cheap movie logic, or pull their punches, and at the same time seldom falsely or dogmatically heighten the stakes, conflicts, or issues at hand.
Bichir is the heart of A Better Life. Carlos is not a hagiographic symbol for the immigrant struggle. He’s a worthy protagonist because he’s human: we root for him because he has good intentions, has empathy for others, and possesses the wisdom that comes from years of hard work, but he is still susceptible to mistakes and stupid decisions. Carlos is a good man, but the movie thankfully goes to great lengths to establish the fact that being the star/hero of the movie does not make him an exception for the rules of the world depicted. Newcomer Julián is just as strong, managing to play a disaffected, frustrated teen with a credible performance that rises above the clichés. The bond between their characters is elicited by the acting talents of both Bichir and Julián, and their chemistry elevates the film to a character piece about a small family trying to support itself above all else that this film may be or could have been. And it’s these strong performances combined with Weitz’s patient filmmaking that gives A Better Life its strength.
The screenplay, however, is far from perfect. The film’s first act suffers from some narrative hand-holding. We understand that actual mobility leads to social mobility, for instance, because the connection between a truck and the American dream is made explicit several times by Carlos’ work partner. Also, Carlos speaks to Luis with an unconvincing Dora the Explorer-style Spanglish that speaks down to the audience, articulating operative words in both Spanish and English as if tutoring the audience. However, once the film gets going, these problems fade away rather quickly and we are able to watch these characters grow and struggle with each rising conflict. Finally, a movie about a serious issue that’s not a “serious issue movie.”
The Upside: Strong performances, solid filmmaking, and the careful steering away from clichés, easy plot points, sensationalism, and didacticism make A Better Life a much better film than it could have been. Simon, Eason, and Weitz give us the only ending a movie like this should have.
The Downside: On-the-nose dialogue at the film’s beginning, overly telegraphed plot points here and there, and some audience tutoring that rings false.
On the Side: Bichir also played Fidel Castro in Soderbergh’s Che.
Correction: In the original version of this review, we asserted that Mrs. Galindo had died before the events of the film took place, but that was incorrect. Our apologies.