In “A Better Life,” an illegal Mexican immigrant named Carlos struggles to make ends meet as a gardener in modern-day Los Angeles. His son Luis, alienated and adrift, is a high-school misfit, a thug in the making. After borrowing funds from his sister, Carlos (Demián Bichir) acquires a truck and tools to start his own gardener’s business. The business offers Carlos a ray of hope, a way out of poverty for himself and his son. But no sooner have the clouds of despair lifted than Carlos’ truck and tools are stolen, leaving father and son in a desperate search through the city’s Latino neighborhoods to recover them. Along the way, the wayward Luis (José Julián) finds greater respect and understanding – for his past, his identity and his father – and we see the lengths to which Carlos will go to ensure a better life for his son.
The above recap places “A Better Life” squarely in the tradition of Latin-American immigrant coming-of-age and family dramas, along the lines of Gregory Nava’s “My Family” (1995). But where “A Better Life” has tastefulness and sentimentality it could’ve used emotional authority and cultural command. Director Chris Weitz and screenwriter Eric Eason aim for something akin to Nava’s brilliant “El Norte” and Vittorio De Sica’s “The Bicycle Thief” (a film with which “A Better Life” shares an obvious resemblance) but their film lacks their predecessors’ vitality and immediacy.
Lacking a close affinity for their characters, Weitz and Eason devote themselves to the mechanics of story beats, plot points and the three-act structure. And lacking an intimate understanding of the realities and nuances of Hispanic culture (particularly the hardships faced by illegal immigrants), they provide us with the stand-by generalities of hard living, barrio-style: We get immigration protests, tattooed gangbangers, police hostilities and laborers clamoring for work from drive-by employers.
It all feels processed out of a Hollywood notion of what Carlos and Luis’ world would be like; none of it feels authentic and distinctive enough for viewers to give themselves over to what Weitz and Eason are presenting. You don’t trust this film in the way you do Nava’s bleak Southern California or De Sica’s cruel post-War Italy or, for that matter, Scorsese’s evocations of Little Italy in “Mean Streets” and “Raging Bull.”
Similarly, in examining the devotion of a father to his son, the film is at a loss: We understand the alienation between Carlos and Luis, the father-son fights and, finally, speeches about sacrifice, but there is little intimate observation here, the stuff by which character is truly revealed. Time and again, Weitz misses key observational opportunities to get at the depths of a father’s love and the emotional dynamics between Carlos and Luis.
The silver lining is an excellent lead performance from Bichir. In the actor’s weary eyes and personable charisma rest the film’s emotional and spiritual resonance. Often, Bichir is filling in the gaps that Weitz and Eason seem unable to, for lack of sensitivity or familiarity with the world they’re depicting. As Luis, Julián is less sure-footed – but that too may be a symptom of the weaknesses in the film’s writing and direction – but his final scenes with Bichir, in which Carlos and Luis contend with a possibly tragic separation, are genuinely affecting. Bichir and Julián’s contributions, to a modest degree, make up for “A Better Life’s” shortfalls, instilling a measure of credibility the movie craves.
Directed by: Chris Weitz
Written by: Eric Eason
Cast: Demián Bichir, José Julián, Dolores Heredia, Joaquín Cosío, Carlos Linares