A Better Life is an intelligent, heartfelt study of the Olympian daily struggles of an honest, hard-working single father who also happens to be an illegal immigrant. He toils as a Mexican gardener in Los Angeles, while doing everything he can to keep his head above water and protect his 14-year-old son from the toxic environment of the ghettos in East. L.A.
Director Chris Weitz works from a careful, balanced script by Eric Eason. Having already shown great promise as an actor (Chuck & Buck) and director (sharing credit with his brother Paul on About a Boy) he hits his stride with A Better Life, an earnest, uncluttered and thoroughly realistic portrait of what it’s like to be down and out in Beverly Hills.
You see them, leathered by the California sun, trimming and shaping the hedges that guard the estates of bankers and movie stars like leafy sentinels—faceless outsiders working impossible hours for slave wages. You wonder where they go at night, how they live. The best their children can ever hope for is mowing grass or repairing car engines. How can they keep the American dream alive if they’re not even American citizens themselves? This is the story of one man who tries.
Carlos (played by renowned Mexican star Demián Bichir) instills in his son Luis (José Julián, an American actor making his debut) the importance of an education. But when his back is turned, the boy is always being tempted by the lure of street gangs in the barrio who make money from petty crimes. Determined to be a decent, trustworthy and respectable person, Carlos borrows his sister’s hard-earned life savings to buy a truck that will ease his workload, double his income and pay off his debts.
When the truck is stolen, the desperate old man and his compassionate kid are forced to test the principles of honesty and fair play, and two generations come together in unexpected ways to forge a new relationship. The parallels between A Better Life and Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 classic The Bicycle Thief are obvious, as director Weitz details the poverty, gangs, police harassment and survival techniques of immigrants trying to remain invisible in order to evade deportation. This is a theme that has been explored before, but never with this much harrowing nuance and poignancy.
The red tape and emotional turmoil immigrants go through to make a contribution to the new country they adopt is wrenching enough to make you ask hard questions of U.S. immigration laws and the hostile, cruel and often criminal government employees who enforce them. Avoiding the detritus of politics that could get confusing, the film presents no clear villains and makes no demands for reform, but there is no question whose side the viewer will be on when Carlos’ luck runs out while he tries to save himself from jail and his teenage son from a bleak future at the mercy of predators on the streets of L.A. without paternal guidance.
Working in both English and Spanish with subtitles, Bichir is nothing less than perfect as he shows the dilemma of a man forced to break the law in order to stand up for his rights as a human being. In the lines of his face and the tears in his eyes, you don’t need to over-analyze outdated laws. The simplicity of the straightforward narrative provides its own morality, and the film engages the senses and rivets attention because it is less about preachy soapbox amendments and more about the definition of family values when the odds are against you.
Weitz never makes the same film twice. This time, aided by first-rate actors, marvelous cinematography and low-key but dramatically surging mood music, he gives us food for thought about the despair of good people without documents, and the apathy of the privileged classes that benefit from their sweat the most without lifting a finger to help them. The “better life” in the title ends up, in the bigger picture, benefiting us all. The power in this movie is the way Weitz trusts us to discover the facts for ourselves.