A Better Life

7 Jul

Title: A Better Life
Year: 
2011
Director: 
Chris Weitz
Writer: Eric Eason, based on a story by Roger L. Simon
Starring: 
Demián Bichir, José Julián
MPAA Rating: 
PG-13, some violence, language and brief drug use
Runtime: 
98 min
Major Awards: –

IMDb Rating: 
6.1
Rotten Tomatoes: 
84%

 

If I’m not mistaken, this film got a bit of Oscar buzz earlier this year, or at least was mentioned in some of the Oscar prediction sites as a little film that could prove to be a contender. And while I don’t really think this one ultimately was that great, I still think it was undeniable good, a fantastic little film about what it means to embrace yourself and want more for yourself, and Chris Weitz managed to make an immigration drama that transcends the clichés and typical elements you might find in them usually to make a powerfully truthful film, and in scaling down so much with this film the man has find tremendous depths to go into.

And Mr. Weitz should really be commended for making this film. After directing the outstanding About a Boy in 2002 with his brother Paul the guy had gone solo for two big-budget projects, the first was the commercial and critical flop that was The Golden Compass and the second one was New Moon, the second installment in the uber-popular Twilight franchise. I was fearing that this guy who had shown such a careful hand in tackling some very personal and intimate themes in that Hugh Grant film was now being sucked into the big Hollywood bubble and making far more superficial and expensive spectacles, but maybe a look into the two films he helped produce during that time, the great Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist and the sublime A Single Man, would have served as an indication that he wasn’t done with the smaller films. And it’s awesome to see him tackle a simple drama about a low-income family of immigrants, people who do anything they can to survive, holding on to whichever jobs they can while at the same time finding out a way to a better life.

Demián Bichir who you might know from his role as Fidel Castro in Steven Soderbergh’s Che or as the druglord Esteban Reyes in the sixth season of Weeds takes on a very different role in A Better Life, that of Carlos a Mexican residing in Los Angeles for the past six years with his fourteen-year-old son Luis. Carlos is consumed by his work, tending lawns of those better-off Americans all day, doing whatever he can to provide for his family. Luis, on the other hand, is a short-tempered teenager, one that doesn’t really have a relationship with his father and that seems to be close to joining a local gang and even closer of getting himself expelled from school.

And this film is really good at showing these harsh realities, of doing hard work while harvesting a dream of self-sufficiency and of a better life not necessarily for one, but for one’s children, of showing the hardship of living without the proper papers, of showing how a strained family relationship looks under such dire circumstances, and the healing process behind it all. Even when Mr. Weitz shows the gangs that are a part of this world, he doesn’t provide them with the stereotypical looks, yes, they are seen as a threat at times, but their humanity is also there, seeing them in the everyday joys and sadness shared by most of us, it’s that quality that differences A Better Life from most other films trying to make some sort of social commentary, this one takes a very calm and simple look at these things, and by doing that it becomes that much deeper.

Something happens then that threatens the promise of the better future that Carlos seemed to have glimpsed at for a second, and Carlos, who works while his kid is at school or out, and who worries about him but doesn’t have time to really communicate with him, becomes one with his son in order to try and get that promise of a future back, and the story really takes off from there, as the two are forced to go through it all together. It’s then that the film focusses on the healing of family connections, as Carlos and Luis together take journey through Los Angeles to right their family’s situation. And Mr. Weitz shows us a Los Angeles that’s real and not what we usually get, with Mexican rodeos, a huge variety of ethnicities, and sees the legendary city through the eyes of a man who has to look at everyone as a threat to his dream and every cop as an enemy who will do nothing to help him out.

I really liked this film, I didn’t think it was ultimately a superb film, but I really liked what Mr. Weitz has done by dialing back the scale of his work again, providing us a film that while is indeed embedded with inherent political issues doesn’t really aim to make a comment on them, it just intends to observe their circumstances. And by giving it a more human approach, by not going out of his way to show the integrity of Carlos, played tremendously well by Mr. Bichir, and by not going out of his way to portray the gangsters as villains or bad people, he makes this film go down softly enough, but even though it goes down softly you’ll find that you’ll have a lump in your throat as you try to swallow it, because this one will emotionally get to you, not as a socially relevant story of immigrants, but as a human one of a father and son brought together by the dire circumstances of their lives and the hope for a better one.

Grade: B+

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