A Better Life Movie Essay Reviews

A Better Life

Current Status
In Season
98 minutes
Limited Release Date
Demian Bichir
Chris Weitz
Eric Eason, Roger L. Simon

Dramas about illegal immigrants have often focused on the journey north — an odyssey pocked with exploitation and fear, but one that generally ends on a note of road-weary triumph. In A Better Life, however, the focus is on the plight of undocumented immigrants who are already ensconced in the United States. Carlos (Demián Bichir), an unassuming gardener, came up from Mexico years ago and made a home in Los Angeles, but to call anything about his existence ”settled” would be an exaggeration. His wife, frustrated by his modest ambitions, left him long ago, and the son he’s raised on his own, Luis (José Julián), is a sullen teenager increasingly drawn to the tattooed allure of gang life. Carlos must keep his head down, literally and emotionally, but anyone who looks at him and sees a meek, pleading, recessive man isn’t reading between the lines of Demián Bichir’s superb slow simmer of a performance. His Carlos is a silent striver who, like the heroes of The Bicycle Thief and Man Push Cart, embodies a humanity that is ultimately heartbreaking.

It’s no cheap irony when Carlos’ attempt to improve his and his son’s lot leads him down a rabbit hole of misfortune. He agrees to take over a colleague’s gardening business (chief asset: a truck), but being an owner turns out to be a lot more treacherous than being an anonymous day worker. When the truck is stolen, Carlos claws and schemes to get it back. The struggle draws him closer to his son, but risks bringing his undocumented status to the attention of the law. A Better Life was directed by the eclectic Chris Weitz (The Twilight Saga: New Moon, About a Boy), who weaves the torpor and anxiety of immigrant life into something dramatically true, if at moments a bit draggy. By the time Carlos confronts a choice he prayed he’d never have to make, the film has put a face on lives we too often feel free to judge without knowing. B+

It Gets Better: Luis (José Julián, left) and his father Carlos (Demián Bichir) have a contentious relationship, as the son flirts with street gangs while his dad works long hours as an undocumented laborer. The film depicts their story with only the occasional lapse into heavy-handedness. Merrick Morton/Summit Entertainment hide caption

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Merrick Morton/Summit Entertainment

'I Need Some Money'

'I Need Some Money'

'I Didn't Know'

'I Didn't Know'

Making a virtue of simplicity and a vice of melodrama, A Better Life is a well-intentioned stab at something we rarely see in American movie theaters: the low-income family drama. This is a genre in which work — exhausting, repetitive, unreliable — is the story's engine and the characters' sole means of survival. For the characters in these films, holding on to a job or finding a better one takes precedence over anything life can throw at them.

For Carlos (Demián Bichir), an undocumented Mexican day laborer who arrived in Los Angeles six years earlier, work is all-consuming. Rising at dawn in his ramshackle South Central rental, he spends long days tending to the well-fed lawns of the affluent, barely seeing his 14-year-old son, Luis (José Julián). Uncommunicative and a little hotheaded, Luis is teetering on the brink of expulsion from school and initiation into a local gang with family ties to his feisty girlfriend (Chelsea Rendon), but it's clear he's more a thoughtful loner than a mindless joiner.

When, in the course of a single day, Carlos achieves his dream of self-employment, only to have it cruelly snatched away, the film transforms into an odyssey of familial healing and a sharp lesson on the realities of living without papers. As Carlos and Luis search for the man who has wronged them, director Chris Weitz (whose family is mostly Hispanic and whose grandmother was the Mexican actress Lupita Tovar) takes us on a tour of locations most Angelenos never see: An immigrant doss house, a Mexican rodeo at Pico Rivera Stadium, a steamy kitchen filled with undocumented scullery staff. Dragging into the light those who prefer to exist in shadows, Weitz forces us to confront a world where every stranger is a threat, every cop an enemy, and crime must be handled without official help.

Sensitively written by Eric Eason (from a story by Roger L. Simon), A Better Life is a far cry from the director's big-studio footprints (TheTwilight Saga: New Moon and The Golden Compass), but the more personal scale suits him. Turning LA into a bifurcated city — on one side, manicured yards and jogging suburbanites, on the other noisy cantinas and loitering gangbangers — Javier Aguirresarobe's photography draws texture from the street life that boils in the background of the frame. Adopting a uniformly downbeat tone, Weitz observes without comment, resisting the impulse to dramatize the snatches of political protest or the desperate men scrambling on corners for a day's work. Like most of the city's residents, the film simply glances and moves on.

The entire film is told through the perspective of illegal immigrants like Santiago (Carlos Linares, left) and Carlos (Bichir). Director Chris Weitz tours locations even most Angelenos never see. Merrick Morton/Summit Entertainment hide caption

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Merrick Morton/Summit Entertainment

The entire film is told through the perspective of illegal immigrants like Santiago (Carlos Linares, left) and Carlos (Bichir). Director Chris Weitz tours locations even most Angelenos never see.

Merrick Morton/Summit Entertainment

Unfolding exclusively from the perspective of illegal immigrants, A Better Life is a dignified, decent film. Neither hopeful nor hopeless, the story is about embracing heritage while striving for more, all the while trying not to step on the neck of your brother. And despite glaring similarities to Italian neo-realist classic Bicycle Thieves and the occasional lapse into triteness — like the soaring music that accompanies Carlos as he scales a palm tree and gazes in aspirational awe at the beauty around him — the film counters soapiness with lead performances of remarkable depth and synchronicity.

Equally pleasing is Weitz's refusal to highlight the integrity of his hero by painting the film's gang members as de facto monsters. Instead, he stages his warmest, most delightful scene in the cozy home of Luis's girlfriend, where two tiny prima donnas sing for their tattooed relatives. It's easy to see why, to a lonely boy, this family feels more real than his own.

A Better Life

  • Director: Chris Weitz
  • Genre: Drama
  • Running Time: 98 minutes

Rated PG-13 for some violence, language and brief drug use

With: Demián Bichir, José Julián, Eddie 'Piolin' Sotelo, Joaquín Cosio

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