BOTTOM LINE: An honest portrayal of the tough life of undocumented immigrants in East LA. Unfortunately, the brilliant performances of Damian Bichir and the great direction of Chris Weitz will do little to sway anti-immigrant loyalist.
“A Better Life” tells the story of a Mexican gardener in East LA who seeks to remove his son from the gang surrounded neighborhood. With a powerful performance from Mexican actor Demián Bichir, the drama spans 48 hours as his character travels through LA hoping to recover a stolen truck while connecting with his son.
Carlos, played by Demián Bichir, decides to buy a truck filled with gardening equipment hoping that it would increase his clientele and his income. While he is struggling to raise money, Luis, portrayed by José Julián, is tempted to join the violent East LA gangs. The same day Carlos buys the truck, it is stolen by a man he hires who is just as desperate as Carlos to improve his life.
Unable to go to the police for fear of deportation, father and son grapple with personal issues as they travel all over LA searching for the truck.
This role of Carlos could have been easily romanticized, which would have conflicted with the grounded tone of the film. Bichir doesn’t overact his gestures, maintaining his eyes and body language. He seems to make himself smaller. Carlos is both afraid of attracting attention while also trying to be a stable force for his son.
When he loses the truck, one can feel the hopelessness and despair Carlos feels at unable to change his future. Bichir’s performance is a beating heart in itself, and is the key to making the other characters sympathetic, rather than simply focusing on the political message.
This film also works due to the delicate direction of Chris Weitz. The movie feels raw, focusing on an area of Los Angeles not typically shown in Hollywood films. Weitz is not caught up in the clichés of the gang-filled East LA. He hints at everything from the bad economy to the lack of education, but he does veer away from Carlo’s journey.
The most thrilling and realistic quality that kept me invested in the father-son story was the use of the dialect found in East L.A. There are few films in which the majority of the cast is non-anglo, and even fewer that try to authentically present the community.
“A Better Life” adds a human face to the issue making its way to the head of political issues, but it falls short in changing the opinions of many who see the film. You feel for the characters and their unfortunate situation, but that leaves little room for reflection after the credits roll.