by Ken B.
The opening credits of A Better Life roll as Carlos Galindo (Demián Bichir) rides in a beat up pickup truck to his job as a gardener. When we first see him, he sleeps on the couch of his small run down house. The places he works are lavish Los Angeles dwellings. He spends the day working in the sun, on harnesses working his way up tall trees. He comes home late at night, to his son Luis (José Julián), and sends him off to bed. Carlos goes to sleep, on the couch again, and another day begins.
Carlos is an illegal immigrant, and has few other options than the low income job he occupies. His coworker (Joaquín Cosio) owns the pickup truck, and is planning to sell it and move back to Mexico. Carlos attempts to borrow money from his middle class sister Anita (Delores Heredia) to buy the truck. He also must deal with his son, who goes to a high school with a very present gang scene, trying to defer Luis from a life of crime and to get a proper education so he will have a brighter future than his father. The father-son plot is solid and moving, which brings memory to the classics of prior decades. I wonder if director Chris Weitz and writers Roger A. Simon and Eric Eason had movies like The Bicycle Thief in mind when bringing this project together. (It almost feels like some kind of modern day homage following a plot development halfway through.)
Whatever the influences, real or perceived, A Better Life is an affecting, emotional drama. The acting and writing are remarkable, and there is a real identity to the overall feel of the film. Eason’s screenplay drips with atmospheric dialogue, in English and Spanish, with slang supposedly realistic down to the street in L.A. it would be uttered on. Javier Aguirresarobe’s cinematography frequently employs grungy or harsh lighting in its interiors, solidifying the truth that for our characters, nearly every setting is uncomfortable in some way or another.
Demián Bichir’s performance must be praised in particular. His acting, especially as the film progresses, is compelling and at times heartbreaking. His talent is demonstratable in a scene where he is in the truck, driving home. As he comes closer and closer, the scenes on the streets are poorer and poorer, and the desperation and depression that comes from this is not verbal, but clearly expressed. José Julián is very good as Luis. In one of his first scenes, we learn that he is fully aware that he wants to live better than his father, but does not want to go through the hurdles (school) of getting there. This way of thinking is projected through later scenes, and even as the character changes, Julián’s performance still has a consistent edge and is memorable.
But one thing remains unclear, and that is the ideas the film wanted to focus upon. In the third act, the film shifts its tone heavily to the issue of immigration. The father-son plot remains, but becomes part of a larger event, which leaves one wondering what the film would be driving at. The final scene suggests that these topics were always irrevocably intertwined, but its preceding hour and a half only slightly approached this. It is an issue that stains an otherwise excellent movie and leaves it on a somewhat jumbled note.
A Better Life still achieves much in its 97 minutes. The acting carries it far, it offers a thought-provoking look at the nature of immigration in the United States (even if it wasn’t ideally paced), the visual style is fitting, and the writing holds it all together. It is good, professional, and poignant. Despite a few flaws, A Better Life is definitely well worth seeing.