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‘A Better Life’ opts for poignant human drama over political advocacy

A Better Life

Written by Eric Eason

Directed by Chris Weitz

USA, 2011

A Better Life, directed by Chris Weitz, succeeds because it knows that at its core it is a father-son story, and not an angry political one.  In lesser hands, a film like this could have gone so wrong, but Weitz, along with the film’s writer Eric Eason, chose to do more with less rather than going for broke.  It also has one of the best performances of year in Demian Bichir.

The film tells the story of a single father, Carlos (Bichir), living in east Los Angeles with his son Luis (Jose Julian).  Like most fathers he just wants his son to have the best possible life he can, one that is better than his working as a gardener.  His goal is to appear invisible because he is an illegal alien, who like many came across the border from Mexico.  When his best friend and boss Blasco retires, he convinces Carlos to buy his truck from him, even though he knows that Carlos doesn’t have a license.  One day the truck is stolen and Carlos and his son by a fellow illegal immigrant who Carlos has offered a job to.

What works best about the movie is the authenticity with which the father-son relationship is explored.  In the beginning of the film, Luis and Carlos, like most fathers and sons, don’t get along very well.  Carlos knows that Luis is skipping school and there is a real danger of that he might fall in with the wrong crowd.  There are some early clunky moments in the film involving Luis’ possible affiliation with gangs and these really don’t work.  However as the film progresses, the truck becomes a real way for these two to bond.  And when they bond the film really starts to take off.  While not a thriller in theory, there are a couple of sequences while Carlos and Luis are on the hunt for the truck that are uncommonly tense.

However, this film would have completely failed without the two strong lead performances that Weitz gets from his actors.  Demian Bichir has been a great character actor for a long time and here he is finally given a star vehicle.  It would have been easy for him to opt for a showy performance, but he allows himself to be a supporting character.  Yes he is just about every scene but he allows himself to fade into the background just like his character needs to.  The result is one of the most understated, and quite possibly the best performance of the year.  Jose Julian is also quite strong as the son, who grows to love his father more as the story goes on.

Some credit should be given to Weitz, Eason, and Bichir for not making Carlos into a complete saint.  He is a very good father but he is not perfect and Bichir is not afraid to show his warts.  For example, when he loses his truck, the first thing he does is get drunk.

This is a comeback of sorts for director Chris Weitz, whose career started out with a lot of promise after co-writing and co-directing the first American Pie and About a Boy.  However, his next two films as a director were the big-budget franchise films The Golden Compass and Twilight: New Moon.  Here he is back in a familiar milieu of character-centric stories.  Also. this is a very good script by Eric Eason, a talented director in his own right, whose directorial debut Manito covered similar ground.

There is a moment late in the film where we think the film is going to take a turn for the worse and do one of two things: either have a miraculous ending of surprising victory or get on its soap box and preach about the injustices placed upon illegal immigrants.  Instead, the last fifteen minutes are incredibly moving because the film chooses to keep its story remarkably human.  It’s a father-son tale, not one about illegal immigration.

Joshua Youngerman