“A Better Life” is a touching and poignant drama and a surprisingly different movie for director Chris Weitz. It’s a story about Carlos, an illegal immigrant and single father played brilliantly by Mexican actor Demian Bichir. Carlos works as a landscaper to provide for his son Luis (Jose Julian) in East Los Angeles. Hoping to improve his and his son’s circumstances, Carlos agrees to buy his employer’s work truck and go in business for himself. But he finds this to be a difficult and daunting task and things quickly go wrong.
Carlos is certainly a likeable character and you can’t help but sympathize with his motivations. You see his dedication to his work which flows from his dedication to Luis. He’s up early and off to work and then comes home late and immediately goes to bed. This probably contributes to the disconnect between him and Luis. While Carlos is spending all his time earning a living, Luis has fallen in with a rough crowd at school and finds himself being drawn to the street gang lifestyle. At first Luis has no intention of ending up like his father. But later he begins to see the contrast between his father’s life of integrity and the trouble-filled dead end that gang life brings.
“A Better Life” is all about the relationship between a father and son. The movie is really at it’s strongest when it focuses on Carlos and Luis and their struggle to stay close in light of their circumstances. Bichir’s earnest performance is completely natural and organic. He sells his character and you truly want him to succeed. Julian’s performance isn’t quite as consistent although he and Bichir share some wonderful moments in front of the camera.
While ”A Better Life” does sometimes seem to overlook that Carlos is actually breaking the law by being here, it still manages to show that illegal immigration can cause numerous problems. It’s that backdrop that gives the story a slight bit of tension. The stakes are high and Carlos knows he could lose everything in a heartbeat. There are a couple of slightly underwritten plot points but otherwise it’s a well paced and well structured story and I found myself completely invested.
There’s so much to like about “A Better Life” even with it’s few flaws. While the father and son dynamic works on many levels, it doesn’t take many chances and goes down a more conventional path. Also, Julian’s performance was a bit wooden in some of the film’s more important scenes. But this is still a strong picture anchored by a fascinating performance from Bichir. It’s hard not to get wrapped up in the lives of these two people even if we pretty much know how everything is going to end.