LAFF 2011: A BETTER LIFE Review

Peter Martin, Managing Editor

They are among us, even when we don't see them. They are aliens in our land, but they're not from a galaxy far, far away, they're from a country that may be far, far away.

Or as close as next door.

Nearly every country on Earth deals with the alien challenge; some are welcoming, some are wary, and some are downright hostile. In the United States, where waves of immigrants have populated the country for more than 200 years, the issue has become choked with so much charged political rhetoric that it often clouds the true feelings of individuals who themselves come from immigrant stock.

In A Better Life, the key difference between Carlos Galindo (Demián Bichir) and his son Luis (José Julián) is that Carlos is an immigrant to the United States, an illegal alien from Mexico, whereas Luis is a legal citizen, born in Los Angeles, California. From birth, then, a gulf was opened between them, and it's only widened with the passage of years.

Carlos, a single parent since his wife left the family, works long hours as a gardener, tending to the homes of better-off Caucasians. Luis, 14, has acquired a girlfriend with gang ties; his best friend is eager for gang life as well. Carlos is so exhausted from working six days out of seven that he barely pays attention to Luis; he seems only vaguely aware of the pressures that Luis is dealing with on a daily basis. It's not a lack of interest on Carlos' part; he's just worn out. As it is, they're barely getting by financially.

Still, Carlos has perfected the art of remaining invisible. As someone who is in the country illegally, he's keenly aware that a single misstep could send him back to Mexico, and away from his son. He made an effort to apply for legal status, only to be ripped off by an attorney, leaving him in dire financial straits. So when his boss Blasco (Joaquín Cosio) urges him once again to buy his truck, Carlos is reluctant to risk coming into the light. He's resigned to standing once again on the street outside a nursery, waiting for a prospective employer to pick him out of a mob of men hoping for work.

Then something happens that prompts Carlos to take a huge gamble. And that leads to a series of events, which feels almost inevitable, yet when one thing happens after another, the cumulative effect stings hard.

A Better Life is not a mystery, though the script was originally conceived and written by Roger L. Simon, a mystery novelist who also penned the screenplays for The Big Fix and Enemies, A Love Story, two of the more bracingly distinctive films of their era. Eric Eason rewrote the script and receives full credit for the screenplay. The sense of inevitability is handled in a straightforward, subtle manner by director Chris Weitz, so that the film's moral and narrative points are made gently and succinctly.

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That's not necessarily something you'd expect from Weitz, whose most recent films are Twilight: New Moon and The Golden Compass. But before those, he made the marvelous About a Boy, which is closer to A Better Life in spirit, theme, and execution. Like About a Boy, the relationship between father and son is cast under a different light, this time allowing the influence of differing national and youth cultures to shape the way that Carlos and Luis relate to one another.

Bichir holds the entire film together, even though he often doesn't seem to be doing anything except sitting. But there is something about the tiny movements of his eyes, his facial gestures, and his body language that conveys the strong feelings that he always keeps bottled up. You get the clear sense that he's always been disposed toward being a polite, kind, hard-working individual who has trouble expressing his feelings. He weighs his words carefully and he doesn't strike out at people: that's not who he is.

Quiet strength has rarely been showcased as a positive quality in leading man roles in Hollywood. More often, it's "quiet but hiding a raging anger," or "quiet but waiting to become a superhero when he takes off his glasses." Carlos Galindo is a different type of hero: someone who leads by example.

A Better Life is a superb drama told entirely from the point of view of Carlos and Luis, which also makes it rare and refreshing. It provides an insider's perspective on life among the lower classes in Los Angeles, a world that is composed of immigrants from many nationalities, all struggling and all striving to make a better life for themselves and their families. Carlos and Luis are not presented as being superior individuals. They are truly ordinary people in a much better than average film.


A Better Life has its world premiere with a gala screening at the Los Angeles Film Festival tonight before opening in limited release in the U.S. on Friday, June 24.

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