A Better Life Review


Chris Weitz, director of The Twilight Saga: New Moon and About a Boy, isn’t a name you’d expect to be attached to a humanistic drama about illegal immigrants, but his A Better Life is about just that, and it’s a very mature piece of work. The film has gotten a great deal of notice for Demian Bichir’s Oscar-nominated lead performance, and rightfully so, as it’s the best thing about the film, but it works on a number of levels. It’s a story about treating people right, even when you aren’t treated that way in return. It looks very poignantly at a father and son trying to reconnect after drifting apart. And, perhaps most of all, it’s about finding the will and the courage to do more than just get by.

Carlos Galindo (Bichir) is our window into modern Los Angeles, where an illegal Mexican immigrant can live a nice quiet life, as long as he stays out of trouble. So Carlos, a single father to Luis (Jose Julian), keeps his head down and works as much as he can so that he might one day be able to send his son to a better school. That’s all Carlos hopes for. Luis, however, was raised around American culture and isn’t satisfied with this meager lifestyle. He’s therefore attracted to the local gang scene, where members can throw around money on expensive cars, jewelry, and with a little bit of luck, a Cribs-style mansion. These two very different attitudes cause a rift to grow between father and son, and this rift is becoming increasingly hard to bridge because Carlos works such long hours.

One day, Carlos’ employer presents him with an opportunity. He’s getting out of the landscaping business and wants Carlos to buy his truck and tools so that he can continue servicing his clients. Though he doesn’t have a driver’s license or enough money to make the purchase, he agrees (with the help of a loan from his sister) because this might just move him closer to the better life he’s promised Luis for so long. But when his hired help ultimately steals the truck, Carlos finds himself in hot water and without any source of income. So he asks his son to help him search the city for their last real chance to make it in America.

The stakes in A Better Life couldn’t possibly be higher, and as such, the actions of not only Carlos and Luis, but also Santiago (the man who steals the truck), are completely believable. Everyone has a different set of values, so it seems conceivable that each man would be willing to do something different to help his own loved ones. For Carlos, he values respect and fashions himself a man with real character. Luis, meanwhile, wants things. You can see dollar signs flashing in his eyes, which means he often takes his dad for a fool. Then there’s this man Santiago. He seems a lot like Carlos—a kindly man that isn’t afraid to give a little to get a little back. But he’s also willing to cross lines that Carlos won’t, to go that extra mile if it means a little more help for his family.

All these competing philosophies collide in Carlos’ head, with some of the positive and negative characteristics of each ultimately winning out and driving his actions late in the film. It’s pretty sad to watch, actually, because we know his intentions are good, but viewed from an outsider’s perspective and without emotion, he does some things that are objectively wrong. At least this is able to set the scene for Bichir’s big Oscar moment, which will come into clear focus as the film proceeds, but that shouldn’t diminish its impact. It’s one of 2011’s biggest tearjerking moments, and unlike some of the year’s other films, it doesn’t at all feel artificial. From beginning to end, A Better Life‘s heart is as pure as Carlos’.

Though writer Eric Eason deserves a great deal of credit for his thoughtful and moving screenplay, the lion’s share of the film’s praise has deservedly gone to Demian Bichir and his very complex and satisfying portrayal of Carlos. What’s perhaps most interesting about it is the way he elicits great emotion out of us without showing a lot himself. Just seeing him stumble around hopelessly looking for the truck with his kind eyes and bomber jacket was enough to make me feel a little misty-eyed. Bichir’s Carlos, however, is proud. Sometimes, that pride takes the form of resolve in the face of adversity. Other times, his pride is in admitting when he’s failed or sharing his feelings with his son. There’s just a lot going on beneath the surface. It’s not showy, in-your-face acting that typically earns the lion’s share of Oscar nominations. Having now seen A Better Life and the four other Best Actor-nominated films, I can say confidently that Bichir’s work is right up there with Gary Oldman’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy performance as my favorite in the category.

The only real supporting performance of note is that of Jose Julian as Luis, and unfortunately, he’s one of the film’s weakest links. He’s not exactly bad; I wouldn’t go so far as to say he brings the film down. But a better performance from him could have made the film resonate more strongly. And it’s hard to say exactly where he goes wrong. I guess he just feels less authentic than Bichir. Acting alongside someone who so effortlessly becomes his character can’t possibly be easy, but I do with there was someone in this role who managed that tough task just a little better.

My last knock against the film is that it contains several really obtrusive musical cues and a score that belongs in a completely different film. But beyond that, A Better Life is very solid. It’s not reinventing the wheel—it definitely shares a few things in common with Thomas McCarthy’s The Visitor, among other films—but it does more than you might expect, and pulls it all off quite well.

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