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Every father wants more for his son.
As long as illegal immigration in the United States continues to generate heated debates and provoke controversial laws, movies focusing on this issue will stay relevant. That's a given. Chris Weitz's independent drama A Better Life takes a rather sensitive approach to its subject matter, inviting audiences to emotionally connect with an illegal alien who stops at nothing to provide a better life for his son. Interestingly enough, the movie doesn't rely on an obvious political agenda, focusing instead on a father-son relationship damaged by the continuous struggle to realize the American dream.
Facts of the Case
The film introduces us to Carlos Galindo (Demiàn Bichir, Weeds), an illegal immigrant who tries to provide for himself and his son Luis (José Juliàn) by working hard as a gardener around fancy Los Angeles neighborhoods. Life without papers in the United States doesn't come without challenges, though. When Carlos' new work truck and tools get stolen, all he can do is embark on a risky mission to find and reclaim his only valuable property.
Instead of openly attacking today's complicated immigration policies through tough dialogue and overly dramatic moments that would instantly crush the film's level of plausibility, A Better Life prefers to simply highlight some of the difficult circumstances under which many illegal aliens try to survive in the United States. In this case, the movie capitalizes on the misfortunes of a single father and his troubled teenage son to evoke certain emotions among its viewers. Although this is your typical story of a family sticking together in times of distress, it certainly won't leave you feeling indifferent about the characters and their ambitions.
The plot of A Better Life remains rather simplistic throughout, starting off with a look at Carlos' everyday life as an L.A. gardener. Determined to offer his son a secured future, Carlos invests every dime he has into his buddy's truck and gardening tools, which he plans to use to build his own business. Carlos obviously doesn't have a driver's license or insurance, but he believes he'll be fine as long as he doesn't raise any suspicion. Alas, things take a turn for the worse when one of Carlos' new colleagues steals his truck right from under his nose. As a result, he and his son decide to track down the thief and retrieve the one last thing that binds Carlos to his hope for a better lifestyle.
In a nutshell, the movie spends most of its roughly 100-minute running time following Carlos and Luis as they slowly start to bond while searching for the stolen vehicle. Both characters have opposing views of how to make a living as an illegal immigrant, and their relationship isn't exactly rock solid when we first meet them. While Carlos believes that hard, honest work can indeed lead to a more successful life, Luis finds himself drawn to the dangerous lifestyle of neighborhood gangs. Searching for the truck provides them with opportunities to both implement some of their own ways of handling things, thus building the ideal opportunity for father and son to connect.
While all this sounds very engaging, A Better Life has its weaknesses. While some scenes and plot turns feel a little forced, other moments in the movie do indeed feel a bit overdramatic. A film like this one obviously can't survive without the necessary dose of heartfelt drama, but some of Carlos' and Luis' actions lack plausibility. Additionally, some of the coincidences these two characters clash with end up being more unconvincing than believable. This doesn't hurt the film as a whole that much, but it creates enough cause for viewers to occasionally raise their eyebrows. The film's third act sets itself apart from the rest in that it goes all saccharine on us, but I didn't necessarily consider that to be a flaw.
What really lifts A Better Life into the realm of solid independent dramas is the cast. It goes without saying that Demiàn Bichir is a fabulous actor, and in the role of concerned father Carlos, he turns in yet another powerful performance. Fueling his character with a strong sense of sincerity, he brings a ton of emotion to his performance, making it incredibly easy for viewers to instantly connect with his personality. José Juliàn's Luis is a bit tougher to like right away, but he too does a fine job portraying a teenage son flirting with gang life. He's the kind of actor whose facial expressions alone say enough about his personality.
Director Chris Weitz brings a simple, yet efficient direction to the project. His filmography includes About a Boy, The Golden Compass, and The Twilight Saga: New Moon, proving he's more than capable of jumping in between genres. His first foray into the independent genre is a success as well. The film's production values are solid, and in terms of technical aspects, A Better Life looks great on DVD. The disc boasts a clean, sharp 1.78:1 widescreen transfer of the feature, shining with great, clear picture quality and decent colors. Audio is provided through a solid Dolby Digital 5.1 surround mix. Extras on the DVD include deleted scenes, a music video, and audio commentary by Chris Weitz.
Although not a film I would put in my list of best of 2011, A Better Life deserves a reasonable amount of praise. The simplicity of the plot may not be appealing to everyone, but the movie comes loaded with enough emotions to leave a lasting mark. Either way, as far as movies dealing with immigration go, A Better Life certainly doesn't disappoint. I recommend you see it for the acting performances.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Summit Entertainment
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