Proving that making a point doesn’t have to happen as a result of preaching, A Better Life successfully tells the simple story of an illegal immigrant Carlos (Demián Bichir) who struggles to make ends meet while keeping his teenage son, Luis (José Julián), away from the gangs of East L.A.
There is no doubt, A Better Life is just as much about the plight of the illegal Mexican immigrant in the United States as it is about Carlos and Luis. But, one can watch the film and never feel as though the larger theme of the film overwhelms the narrative or the characters. That is a credit to the director, Chris Weitz.
Carlos is a hard worker. He’s landed steady work with another illegal immigrant who owns a truck and has a base of customers for his landscaping business. Unfortunately for Carlos, the truck and the business are going to be sold to the highest bidder. Carlos is tempted to bid but doesn’t have the funds. He finally breaks down and calls his sister to ask for the money. She’s reluctant to give it, not because she doesn’t trust Carlos but because her husband won’t approve. Without her husband’s knowledge, she delivers $12,000 in cash to Carlos. He buys the truck, goes on to run a successful landscaping business, and achieves the American dream for he and his son. Not so fast.
In his altruistic and trusting nature, Carlos selects an older gentleman from the group of those looking for work. This is a man who shared his sandwich with Carlos. This fairy tale arrangement doesn’t last long, as the old man waits until Carlos is in a tree to steal the keys to the truck and take off. Most businessmen in this situation would proceed to call the cops, but most businessmen probably aren’t illegal aliens. Carlos shows up home late that night distraught and drunk. His son guides him to the couch and tucks him in for the night.
Luis is at a crossroads. His girlfriend has uncles in a gang and are covered in tattoos that would make even Mike Tyson question their tastes. Luis doesn’t like school and is developing the mentality of a street thug where hard work, honor and decency his father displays on a daily basis are scoffed at. There isn’t much keeping Luis away from joining the gang. His friend desperately wants to join and eventually does, but there is something keeping Luis from committing. It’s likely the respect he still maintains in a small part of himself for his father. Even though Luis talks irreverently to his dad throughout much of the film, he doesn’t give into the impulse to take what likely seems to be the easy way out in joining his girlfriend’s uncles.
The theft of the truck leads father and son on a detective mission. It’s at this point in the film where I felt an odd, yet strong comparison to Winter’s Bone. As much as Winter’s Bone was a backwoods film noir, it seemed to be about displaying the conditions and culture of the poorest folks in the Ozarks. Similarly, A Better Life shows us a slice of life for the illegal Mexican immigrant in LA while the mystery of where the truck is gets solved. The journey and the sites along the way are far more interesting than the amateur detective work being done. The contrast between the ethos of Carlos and Luis are played out in some trite and less trite manners. In the end a deeper bond between the two develops as they both pursue a common goal that becomes bigger than either one of them.
A Better Life walks a tightrope of authenticity and after school special television episode. There were moments I was sure the movie was going to plunge to depths it could not recover from but the screenwriter resisted and the fine acting wouldn’t allow it to teeter into schmaltz. An admirable task with the payoff being a solid movie with a bigger message behind it.