Chris Weitz is a name you probably don’t know, and this has all the hallmarks of an art-house film with indie roots. It’s about immigrants. It has no Hollywood stars. It’s on limited release in the IFI and it has had next to zero marketing. But Chris Weitz is a director whose films have grossed over $1 billion dollars worldwide. He’s part of the mastermind brotherhood that created American Pie, he directed and adapted About A Boy and Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass, and most recently he was at the helm of Twilight: New Moon. The success of this last venture essentially allowed him to write his own cheque as regards his next project, and the result is A Better Life, a story-driven relationship piece about an illegal-immigrant father and his ungrateful son in modern LA. Certainly a change from the father-son dynamic in American Pie.
The story follows Carlos Galindo (Demian Bichir), an illegal Mexican gardener in Los Angeles, and his ungrateful, temperamental teenage son, Luis (José Julián). Carlos buys a truck in order to set up his own gardening business and make more money, with the aim of getting Luis to a better school in a better neighbourhood, and away from the temptations of gangs and crime that surround them. The plan is disrupted when the truck is stolen by a worker, forcing Carlos and Luis to join together and search for the truck and the culprit. If this is sounding familiar to any film buffs out there that’s because the plot appears to be almost completely lifted from Bicycle Thieves, a 1948 Italian classic, but this is actually far more moving and affecting than a simple rip-off or remake. Weitz and his team have taken the time to really immerse themselves in the social setting of their film. Almost every character is Hispanic, and those who are white are fleeting authority figures such as policemen, lawyers or garden-owners. The film does a wonderful job of immersing the viewer into the world of Hispanic East L.A., with everything from the schools to the accents to the flow of conversation between Spanish and English feeling authentic.
Big-budget credentials have been brought to bear on the piece too, meaning that the film, while clearly art-house in its intention, never feels cheap or budgeted in its production values. The lead editor, cinematographer and music supervisor from Twilight: New Moon have followed Weitz to this project, while the composer Alexandre Desplat, another Twilight veteran, is fresh from scoring the final instalments of the Harry Potter franchises. All of this top Hollywood talent manages to strike the balance between production quality and authenticity perfectly; East LA is brought to life in all its vivid, vibrant, downtrodden reality, and the edgy reality of undocumented alien life in the United States is a fitting backdrop to the tensions that underpin the relationship between father and son.
While it would be tempting to cast this as a social commentary on the plight of the immigrant, to do so would also be to miss the point of A Better Life. This is, at heart, a story about a father and son who don’t understand each other. Carlos wants what is best for his son above all else. He strives for a future for his son even as it means sacrificing his own present. Luis, his son, sees this as a demeaning way to live your life, and is tempted, although not convinced, by the local gang members who command respect and attention from the whole community. His father is just another immigrant labourer, a nobody, and Luis doesn’t want to end up the same way. When this relationship is brought to a head in the scenes where father and son must hunt down the truck thief the film is at its strongest and most compelling. The disparity between the two attitudes – Carlos humble and dignified, Luis brazen and stubborn – is played out brilliantly. The acting is what makes this film stand out; while the story is familiar the performances from Julián and, above all, Bichir, ensure that it is predictable but never dull. Bichir, a huge star in Mexico but perhaps best-known to English-speaking viewers as the young Fidel Castro in the 2008 Benicio Del Toro-fronted Ché, has an exceptional turn as the downtrodden immigrant father. Convincingly treading the line between hope and desperation that seems the trademark of the modern immigrant experience, Bichir’s Carlos has the quiet dignity, humility and love that the part requires to be both convincing and emotionally engaging. It would be easy to play this script as a simple war between two angry and sad males, but Carlos and Luis are never seen to be caricatures or stereotypes, which is why this film succeeds where a social commentary would fail; it is moving and affecting to the end. It is perhaps only a shame that the movie hadn’t been released at the beginning of the year, as Bichir’s performance is certainly as good as any of the Oscar-nominated turns in recent memory.
As good as the performances are, and as emotional as the story can be, A Better Life does still suffer from the predictability of the plot and the certainty of some of the incidents. That said, Bichir’s portrayal of Carlos is probably worth the admission price alone, and the high-quality of the production should put to bed any fears people may have of going to a low-budget, low-visibility release. If you want a film to move you in this season of blockbusters, then A Better Life is definitely worth the trip to the IFI.
Four stars ****