by Hugh Fisher
“A Better Life” is an island in a sea of CGI, two-dimensional characters and uninspiring sequels.
Director Chris Weitz gives us a film about the struggles of a Mexican immigrant father and his American-born son.
A high school friend of mine fell in love with a person from Mexico who’s in this country illegally. From what little I know of that reality, this movie hits the mark in showing those who risk imprisonment and deportation to give their families a better standard of living.
Carlos Galindo (Demián Bichir) is a gardener working long hours to keep the lawns and trees of the wealthy looking beautiful. His teenage son, Luis (José Julián), is a slacker, skipping school and running with teens on the fringe of gangs.
Carlos is torn between the steady work he knows and the desire to invest in his own gardening service – thousands of dollars he would have to borrow, with a risk of losing it all.
There’s also the fact that Carlos has trouble communicating with his son, who’s lazy and disrespectful.
But when a co-worker turned thief targets the gardening business, Carlos and Luis grow closer. Teenage Luis wants to find and hurt whoever’s responsible for hurting his father.
Carlos stays quiet, as he does throughout the movie. But it’s clear he can’t understand how and why one of his own people – a Latino and a worker – could betray him.
Though it’s truly emotional and well-written, “A Better Life” falls short in its pacing. The first third of the film spends more time than needed establishing the characters’ backgrounds and daily routines.
That said, I admire the detail of the world Weitz creates and the subtle comparisons he presents between life in America and in Mexico.
We see Carlos and Luis bonding at the traditional Mexican rodeo, which Luis used to enjoy as a child. The costumes, the horsemanship and the mariachi music bring back memories and help them actually open up to one another.
Minutes later, Carlos walks into a Mexican-themed nightclub, where similar tunes are amplified and backed with a techno beat, while dancers grind on the floor amid gaudy decor and flashing lights.
The world Carlos grew up in and the world in which he now tries to work is separated by an enormous gulf.
More shocking are views of the gang-ridden high school Luis attends.
With armed guards and high chain-link fences, it looks like a prison block and foreshadows the choice Luis faces as his friends choose street life over education.
But don’t think “A Better Life” is too grim or gritty. There are moments of genuine humor, exchanges between Carlos and his family that are warm and witty.
For a film with actors largely unknown to many audiences, “A Better Life” shows us good acting. And I fully expect both Bichir and Julián to show up more often in future films.
No matter your views on the issue of illegal immigration, expect to leave “A Better Life” with a more human understanding of this problem. Weitz shows us the lives and livelihoods of immigrant families in America are less secure than ever in these uncertain times.
Grade: 3/4 stars