A Better Life
Directed by: Chris Weitz Cast: Demian Bechir, Jose Julian Running Time: 1 hr 38 mins Rating: PG-13 Release Date: July 8, 2011 (Chicago)
PLOT: An illegal immigrant (Bechir) dreams of a better neighborhood and school for his son (Julian), who is being tempted by gangs. After the father wrangles enough money to buy a truck from a friend, the truck is stolen by another worker.
WHO'S IT FOR?: A Better Life makes an emotional appeal for the case of illegal immigrants, which is bound to play better to audiences of some parts of America than others. As for age groups, the PG-13 film plays like a slightly more aggressive PG movie, though the drama asks for mature attention. The film's central conflict, on the other hand, can grab any person of nearly any age, so long as they have some emotional investment in "the American Dream."
EXPECTATIONS: This looked like it would be one of the more unique dramas of the summer, as I wasn't able to think of any other films about illegal immigrants at the multiplex (other than Thor, I suppose). Also, the attachment of a Weitz was suspicious - didn't one of the two direct The Twilight Saga: New Moon?
Demian Bechir as Carlos Galindo: Bechir gives a somber performance here. He is certainly able to deliver a monologue, but the film's intent with his teary-eyed moments can be overbearing to the audience. He's best here when he's simple, not when he's trying to speak heart-to-heart to his son, or when he's trying to sneak past security to recover what belongs to him. Score: 5
Jose Julian as Luis Galindo: The teenagers of A Better Life are bungled in their presentation, and Luis is a good example. Despite his bratty impulses, Luis is meant to have a vulnerable innocence. But we hardly care about him (except that we worry he might becoming a cheesy gang member). Instead, we only care about him for the sake of his father. Score: 3
TALKING: The film's dialogue gets the clunkiest when it lets teenagers speak, and sometimes gang members. It can easily feel forced, and not resemble an authentic interaction between two human beings. The interactions between Luis and his friend are the worst, and sometimes can take a turn for the cheesy; in reaction to a beef with a fellow teenager, one says, "We can't let these b*tches take an inch, or they take a mile." Score: 3
SIGHTS: Possibly the work of a potentially accidental metaphor, the high school that Luis attends looks more like a prison than an educational institution. There's a montage of the "other" side of Los Angeles, which shows affluent white families being happy. It's not necessary, as witnessing the places in which Carlos is able to work sets up the film's class division quite clearly. Score: 4
SOUNDS: Alexandre Desplat contributes one of his less significant scores to A Better Life, which can be used for obvious emotional queues more often than it should. Ozomatli's song "Jardinero" is heard prominently in the film. Score: 5
BEST SCENE: The scene in which the father, Carlos, arrives at his son's school to pick him up in the new truck, is the best scene in the film for it shows genuine emotion on the father's quietly excited face. We can feel his optimism brimming from his restrained smile and his patience as he deals with his slightly ungrateful son. It's not a moment that pushes for tears, as the last scene between the father and son so shakily does.
ENDING: "Let's go home."
QUESTIONS: How aware were the creators of this film that this movie functioned very similarly to The Bicycle Thief? Is there any way that film could have gotten a sort of screenplay credit?
REWATCHABILITY: However challenging A Better Life may be with its issues, its story is very straightforward, and as a piece of filmmaking, its far from remarkable. This might be a movie to fuel ethical debate, but it's not one that can be viewed over and over for any significant reason.
A Better Life borrows so much from the Italian film The Bicycle Thief, a recognized classic of film history, that it should be considered stealing. The two films are very similar with their central story - a hardworking father in need of a boost both economically and in the sense of pride is able to purchase a vehicle that will hopefully open big doors for him and his loved ones, which will in turn allow him a job that will finally set things on a more optimistic path. However, his spirits are crushed and his emotional stamina is tested when his vehicle is stolen, and he must venture through the landscape that he's trying to ultimately escape from to get it back. At his side is his son, whom he is trying to set a good example for (the young boy in The Bicycle Thief is about five years old, however). The films end differently, but oddly enough, share the same final shot, which is of a wide shot of characters walking away from the camera into the distance, into the unknown.
Its impossible to think that director Weitz and a lot of people involved with the creation of A Better Life weren't extremely aware of these parallels, or if they even tried to use the framing of The Bicycle Thief for their story. After all, that Italian film (made post WWII) is a true classic, and it's an incredible film that still can hold up with audiences today. It's almost like Weitz and Co. thought this movie would be a safe bet because it was using such strong and successful parts of The Bicycle Thief, that it would work with almost if not the same effect De Sica's film had in 1948.
I'm not sure what this movie is saying about illegal immigrants. Yes, those who are in America illegally can certainly be determined workers. While it is nice that Carlos does get the truck, which could help him move on to big things, it is frustrating to see him drive around in said truck without a license (his punishment later in the film is fairly expected, but the concept is still difficult). At the same time, this movie seems to say that, "Well, they're gonna keep coming anyway, even if you send them back." It's like A Better Life is making its plea for the citizenship of illegal immigrants through emotional sucker punches, asking for our sorrow more than anything else. This makes me wonder whether A Better Life needs its illegal immigrant angle, or if it could have worked with actual American citizens who are also hardworking. It doesn't seem like the concept really works for the well-being film, but just provides some more emotional layering, on top of gang drama, on top of father/son drama, on top of stolen truck drama.
It is a nice change of pace to see a film that discusses illegal immigrants from the perspective of the hard worker. But that's not enough to fully get audiences emotionally on board, especially when things can get a bit rocky as A Better Life ventures towards melodramatic territories, instead of working harder to stand as a more honest moment in American neo-realism.
FINAL SCORE: 4/10