A Better Life

Over the border: Beneath the surface of an undocumented immigrant’s skin

Jul 18, 2011 at 5:58 pm

Like its beleaguered hero, A Better Life labors under heavy burdens; it’s a tiny, intimate drama in the midst of blockbuster season, directed by a guy known for making Twilight sequels, and also happens to be about one of the most explosive issues in American politics. Compounding matters is that this humble film is ostensibly a remake of Vitttorio Di Sicca’s immortal 1948 The Bicycle Thief, still considered one of the masterworks of world cinema, and a huge shadow to walk under. You don’t need to know any of this to enjoy A Better Life, but it does help put the film’s seemingly small ambitions on screen in a grander light.
Mexican star Demian Bichir is utterly captivating as Carlos, an undocumented day laborer and single father struggling to get by in hardscrabble East L.A. After years of struggle, he’s finally found a measure of stability riding shotgun in a two-man landscaping outfit, until his partner announces his retirement, and offers to sell his truck and business to Carlos. The danger is that without “papeleas” or legal documents, that the merest traffic infraction could mean deportation. Still, the opportunity to improve his situation is too tempting for Carlos; he swings a loan from his more established sister, buys the truck and promptly has it stolen by the first guy he hires for a tree trimming gig. Luis (Jose Julian), Carlos’ impudent, Americanized teen son, seems oblivious of his father’s plight until the theft, which he wants to handle street-style, like the junior thugs who’ve been trying to recruit him. Luis loves him, but doesn’t respect or understand his dad, who works so hard to stay stateside but seems to keep a foot planted in the old ways.
Father and son must put their differences aside to find the thief and recover the truck, and hopefully preserve their shared future.
Director Chris Weitz has had a curiously varied career, helming everything from American Pie to The Golden Compass, and seems an odd fit for a heartfelt low-budget indie drama. But blockbuster hand Weitz mostly succeeds by keeping it simple; keeping the material from wandering into maudlin back alleys and rhetorical quagmires. There is very little sermonizing here, though there are some trenchant digs at the hypocrisy of the immigration system, the film works best when it sticks to the small scale and personal.
As a political statement, it’s overly simplistic, but as a narrative it’s effective and emotionally potent, and earns every tearful moment that a lesser film would’ve have stole.