An earnest immigration drama from a Hollywood insider that hits you over the head with its message title, A Better Life eases unavoidable concerns instantly, with a deft, concise opening sequence: A middle-aged Latino man wakes up on his living room couch and heads out for a day of landscape work while his teenage son sits at home watching similar — perhaps the same — homes depicted on MTV Cribs. At the end of the night, the son retires to the house's lone bedroom, while the father goes to sleep on the couch again, a few hours away from the cycle repeating.
Just a few minutes of screen time and very little dialogue establishes so much: a father's daily sacrifice, a son's lack of comprehension, the gulf between their lives and those of people for whom the father works, the willful distance the more assimilated son keeps from his father's work.
A Better Life is directed by Chris Weitz, whose blockbuster credentials as a director or producer include the American Pie and Twilight series. But Weitz also helmed the adaptation of the Nick Hornby novel About a Boy, a more modest — and more effective — film about a father/son relationship.
Perhaps Weitz draws on that experience here, in this modest, affecting, imperfect film boasting two very strong lead performances. The father, Carlos, is played by Demián Bichir, a veteran Mexican actor best known here for his portrayal of Fidel Castro in Steven Soderbergh's Che and for a recurring role on the Showtime series Weeds. Bichir plays undocumented immigrant Carlos as a man quiet by both makeup — naturally reticent and inarticulate — and design — committed to staying "invisible" to avoid deportation. The son, Luis (relative newcomer José Julián), is a similarly soft-spoken, surly kid somewhat embarrassed by his family situation and skating along the edges of Los Angeles' Latino gang culture.
Despite its Hollywood pedigree — the film is distributed by Summit Entertainment, which produces the Twilight series — A Better Life eschews familiar faces and boasts a strong sense of place — with location shooting capturing the East L.A. street scene and hidden-to-us spots like an open-air market, a neighborhood rodeo, a mariachi nightclub, run-down, immigrant-stuffed South Central apartment complexes, and the lush, landscaped Hollywood Hills homes where Carlos works.
A Better Life sidesteps the easy drama Luis' gang associations might have provided, handling that subplot very well, and finds its core during a sequence unabashedly borrowed from the neorealism classic Bicycle Thieves, which turns father and son into a reluctant detective team of sorts for a series of tense, well-played scenes that establish the quick, delicate calculus that Carlos' undocumented status can demand.
Despite simple, familiar plotting, A Better Life works well as a personal story. It's when it strains too much for wider resonance — in its overbearing title, in its awkward deployment of real-life immigration-policy protests — that Weitz shows his limitations.
Opening Friday, July 22nd