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A Better Life

July 31, 2011
A Better Life

After directing New Moon, Chris Weitz may have wanted to redeem himself a bit so he didn’t end up making that sort of thing over and over. And with A Better Life he does a good job of it. Not to delve too much into clichés, it’s a powerful, moving picture of how some people live in this country, just trying to reach for the American dream.

Carlos Galindo (Demián Bichir) is an undocumented Mexican immigrant living in East Los Angeles with his son, Luis (José Julián). He works all day, seven days a week as a landscaper, while Luis goes to a school that feels more like a prison, in both architecture and company. And yet, they actually have it better than many; Carlos works only one job, and they have their small, three-room house to themselves, instead of having to stack four people like cordwood in each bedroom.

Carlos’ boss is ready to retire and move back to a farm in Mexico, and he encourages Carlos to buy his truck and tools, and take over the business himself. Carlos is nervous, as without documentation he has no driver’s license, and a simple broken taillight could be enough to get him deported and leave Luis stranded.

But his desire to provide better for his son wins out, and Carlos takes a risk; he buys the truck with twelve thousand dollars borrowed from his sister, who married into citizenship, only for it to be stolen by the first worker he picks up to help him. And of course he can’t go to the police for help, so he has to search on his own, or with Luis’ help.

The film owes a debt in its structure to Ladri di biciclette, though it’s sufficiently changed that I don’t think it can really be called a remake or an adaptation of at film. Eric Eason has done a great job of adapting Roger Simon’s story, and Weitz has gotten a great performance out of the entire almost-all-Hispanic cast. I also have to say that Alexandre Desplat’s score helped enormously to set the mood.

But it’s Bichir who owns the screen in scene after scene, both by himself and in his interactions with Julián. In fact, I can’t think of another movie in recent memory with such a great father-son dynamic. Carlos is a strong figure — neither overly friendly nor unduly stern — while Luis is a boy finding his way in a difficult world — rebelling against strictures while ultimately appreciative of guidance. And it’s their story that shines through and saves the movie from becoming an overwrought morality play.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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