STARRING Demian Bichir, Jose Julian DIRECTED BY Chris Weitz SCREENPLAY Eric Eason, Roger L. Simon MPAA RATING Rated PG-13 RUNNING TIME 98 Mins. DISTRIBUTED BY Summit Entertainment DVD EXTRAS NA
"A Better Life" Review
Few American films have taken a bold step into the honest portrayal of the Mexican-American family experience and, for this, director Chris Weitz (About a Boy, Twilight Saga: New Moon) must be given kudos. A Summit Entertainment release, A Better Life is yet another successful slice of life film directed by Weitz, who seems to have mastered balancing stories with remarkable intimacy yet showing how they are connected to a much larger story.
Carlos (Demian Bichir) is an undocumented illegal having resided for years in the United States and having settled, at least as settled as he can get, in Los Angeles. Carlos lives a low-key life as a gardener, having long ago been abandoned by his wife over his modest ambitions and growing increasingly disconnected from his son, Luis (Jose Julian), a moody and insulated teenager increasingly drawn to the far more exciting gang life.
Determined to create a better life for he and his son, Carlos takes over a peer's gardening business and the truck that goes with it. With his life seemingly turning around, his life is thrown a dramatic curve when the truck that he depends on is stolen. It is in this scene when we realize just how dramatically we've become invested in Carlos' story, as we look into his eyes and see a man who realizes that he has no legal recourse. Initially possessing the impulse to call the police, Carlos quickly realizes that to do so would only lead to his own arrest.
Somewhat to his own surprise, his efforts to get his truck back lead to a reunification with his son. Can he manage to protect this better life for he and his child?
Demian Bichir gives one of the year's finest leading performances as Carlos, a man who lives a quiet existence because he has to yet whose entire soul simmers underneath what amounts to societal submission. Similar in story arc to the class The Bicycle Thief, A Better Life sells a simple story to near perfection. Bichir's Carlos may not necessarily attract the sympathy of those who still believe that all illegals should be sent back, but the story that Carlos is living out is a remarkably human drama and it's a story that should resonate deeply with anyone who has ever had to fight for a dream, for someone they love or for seemingly impossible justice. Jose Julian, as well, is quite remarkable as the young man who initially sees his father as a complete loser yet, over time, begins to see the fullness of the man as they work together to right a wrong. Gabriel Chavarria also shines as a supporting player and, for the most part, there are no wrong notes played in any aspect of the film.
There's an inherent political angle here, yet Weitz doesn't really play the political card at all. Carlos is a decent man, yet he's committing a crime merely by existing in this country. The gang-bangers, on the other hand, are residents of this country whose very lives define what it truly means to live as an illegal.
Who's right? Who's wrong?
Weitz doesn't really answer the questions, though they exist, instead choosing to focus the camera and his story on the relationship between father and son and how it's impacted by the lives in which they find themselves. Beautifully photographed in a side of Los Angeles seldom captured on screen by Javier Aguirresarobe with one of the year's most stellar original scores by Alexandre Desplat, A Better Life is one of the best films of 2011.