Friday, February 3, 2012

A Better Life Movie Review

There’s something about a white director and a white screenwriter making a film about an immigrant Latino family in Los Angeles that doesn’t sit right, like Steven Spielberg or Norman Jewison directing movies about the African-American experience. That director Chris Weitz was able to make such a simple and moving family drama that portrays real characters without resorting to stereotypes shows willingness and empathy on his part to get it right. He could not have been successful without the touching screenplay by Eric Eason from a story by Roger L. Simon and surely it helped that it was financed by smaller independent studios, freeing the filmmakers to work outside the constraints of the studio system that otherwise might have insisted on a story in which a white character achieves self-actualization by helping non-white characters. Not that we’ve seen that before in a popular film nominated for the Best Picture Oscar.

Though gang life is present in the background of A Better Life – as it should be if we’re going to believe a film about a Los Angeles gardener and his son – it is not the heart of the story. It’s a fact of life, one that Carlos (Demián Bichir, nominated for the Best Actor Oscar for his role) is acutely aware of without ever discussing it directly with his teenage son Luís (José Julián). Luís has a best friend, Facundo (Bobby Soto), who wants them both to join a gang. Luís is already in tight with several gang leaders because he dates one of their sisters, Ruthie (Chelsea Rendon). We see that Luís admires the security of the gang and the chance to be someone that matters, but we also see the trepidation in his steps, a fear that Fecundo doesn’t have. We sense that Carlos is knows the path his son is headed if he doesn’t take steps to make a change quickly. As a director Weitz tells us so much with glances and with the expressiveness of his actors’ eyes, Bichir in particular, who can communicate a wide range of emotions with nothing but a facial expression and the body language of a man continually beating his head against a wall.

Carlos works for Blasco, a successful landscaping business owner getting ready to move back to his home after saving enough money that he can retire comfortably in Mexico. He wants to sell the truck, and essentially the business, to Carlos, who doesn’t think he can find the money. He swallows his pride to ask his sister, an immigrant who has had much better financial success, for a loan and he buys the business assuring Luís they will be able to move to a nicer neighborhood and better school. Carlos, as a representation of the immigrant story, has about the worst luck in the world as his truck his stolen on his first day recruiting day laborers. Ready to throw in the towel, his son convinces him they have to go looking for the truck.

We think this will turn into a hero’s journey-cum-road movie with Carlos and Luís learning something about each other, but Eason and Simon’s story has some devastating turns in store. Yes, father and son do form a closer bond with Carlos having the chance to see what has become of Luís, who is often brutal and unforgiving in laying down the law of the streets. Miraculously they get the truck back, but the story doesn’t end there. There are further developments that I shall not reveal. I will say, however, that Carlos, an undocumented immigrant, knows what the consequences are to his actions. Luís knows too and encourages his father to do something that would ultimately be more detrimental to everyone. Here is one of the film’s beautiful moments when Carlos simply gives in, recognizing that it’s the best and perhaps final lesson he can give his son.

The performances are understated and real. Bichir is rock solid in his stoicism until the heartbreaking emotional climax, a conversation with Luís about his future. It is wonderful that both the Screen Actors Guild and the Academy have recognized this wonderful performance because it is the complete opposite of the grandiose displays of Acting with a capital ‘A’ that is so often rewarded.

Weitz has great sympathy for the plight of undocumented immigrants. It is outside the scope of this film to decide what the political position should be. He simply presents the life of one man and his family as a fact of life. He is in the country illegally and any false step can have life-altering consequences. We can clearly see the difficulties inherent in a life of hiding, but neither Eason in his screenplay nor Weitz in the direction detail this as anything more than something Carlos has to live with. This approach makes A Better Life a modest film that, in keeping the story simple, does more to evoke our sympathies than a lesser film that loses control. It’s not a great film by any means, but it is a little gem that’s worth seeking out.

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