It has no stars you’re likely to recognize. Its director, Chris Weitz, has only made one entirely successful film before—About a Boy (2002). There is simply no hook whatever to get you to go to A Better Life—and that includes its lackluster trailer and appallingly generic title. As a result, I’m probably wasting my time telling you that this is, in fact, a movie you ought to stir yourself to go see. That may surprise you. It certainly surprises me. I’d been semi-dreading seeing this film for weeks, and was not in an improved frame of mind when one press screening was canceled and I ended up making two trips to see a movie I had very little interest in seeing at all. I was wrong. This is a terrific little film.
OK, it’s an illegal immigrant saga and it’s not like we haven’t already had a few of those—all well-intentioned, but usually dramatically a bit wanting. This one is different, though you might not think so at first. It starts out rather indifferently, feeling like more of the same. We have the struggling illegal-immigrant gardener Carlos Galindo (Demián Bichir) trying to make a better life for his American-born son Luis (José Julián). Luis is very much what we’d call “at risk,” being ever close to joining a gang. Not only are his friends in gangs or trying to be, but his girlfriend (Chelsea Rendon) comes from a family of ganglords. Moreover, the police “naturally” assume he’s a gang member—after all, he’s Latino and lives in East L.A.
Carlos finds himself in an awkward position. His boss, Blasco (Joaquín Cosio), has made enough money to go back to his farm in Mexico and wants Carlos to buy his truck and equipment. Not only does Carlos not have the money, but he has no driver’s license and would only be one traffic violation away from deportation if he was stopped by the police. Nonetheless, when his sister (Dolores Heredia) offers him the money, he takes it—against his better judgment. It’s not long before that judgment is tested when the truck is stolen—ironically when Carlos is repaying an act of kindness. This is also where A Better Life becomes a much more interesting and compelling drama than expected. It is essentially a variation on Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief (1948), but it has a vitality and resonance all its own.
I don’t want to say too much about what happens, because the drama that unfolds—and the understanding that grows between father and son—attains some degree of its power from being unexpected. It is a small film, yes, but it’s also entertaining and it succeeds better than any film I have seen in putting a truly human face on the subject of illegal immigration. And it does this without ever becoming preachy or self-righteous. Indeed, that’s probably why it works where other equally well-intentioned films haven’t. See this film. I think it will surprise you. Rated PG-13 for some violence, language and brief drug use.