With all the heated and sometimes hateful controversy surrounding the issue of illegal immigration in the United States, it’s depressingly easy to lose sight of the fact that illegal aliens are people, not statistics. They are both omnipresent and, especially if one chooses not to look, invisible, and no more so than in southern California, the setting for Chris Weitz’s “A Better Life,” about a single father who exists under the radar and dreams the American dream.
Very few American movies have dealt with the experience of illegals – “El Norte” (the best of them), “The Border,” and “The Visitor” are probably the best known. As a result, much of “A Better Life” has a built-in fascination that carries us through its rough spots. With a modicum of melodrama, it focuses on a world that is relatively new to movies. Several scenes set in the barrios of East Los Angeles, or at a visiting Mexican rodeo, have an admirable, semidocumentary realism. Eric Eason’s script is sometimes unduly contrived and derivative, but we are always aware that something larger is being played out.
Carlos (Demián Bichir), who works as a gardener’s helper, lives with his 14-year-old son Luis (José Julián) in a rundown apartment in East L.A. He sleeps on the couch so that Luis can have a comfortable bed and be fresh for school, even though Luis, a good student when he wants to be, often skips classes to hang out with his other truant friends.
When Blasco (the wonderful Joaquín Cosio), who owns the lawn business, decides to go back to Mexico, he offers to sell Carlos his truck and equipment. Since Carlos has no driver’s license – and because a routine traffic violation could result in deportation for him – he is reluctant at first. Eventually he takes up his sister’s generous offer of a loan and buys the truck. A new world opens up to him, until, on his first day – well, if you’ve ever seen the great De Sica neorealist masterpiece “Bicycle Thieves,” you’ll have no trouble figuring out what comes next.
The resemblance to De Sica’s film is a bit closer than an homage, if something less than a rip-off. Still, it’s a functional story device, even though the movie we keep being reminded of is one of the greatest ever made, while “A Better Life” is just solidly OK. As Carlos and Luis comb the barrio and South Central L.A. in search of the stolen truck, they slowly bond. Or rather, Luis bonds with his father. Carlos’s love for his son is never in doubt. His prime motivation for buying the truck and risking everything was simple: He wants to move his son into a better neighborhood and away from the gangs the boy has so far tenuously resisted.
The film captures the ways in which Luis, who is Americanized, rejects his father’s old-school ways. This rejection would probably have happened even without the complication of illegal immigration; it’s a staple of generational and adolescent conflict. But because Bichir is such a quietly forceful presence, Carlos is continually favored by the camera in his encounters with Luis, who displays a violent streak that the film never comes to terms with. The father-son emotional trajectory is too easily plotted – we can see where things are headed early on – and yet it still hits home.
I wish “A Better Life” had moved further away from its comfort zone. If Carlos wasn’t so reliably salt of the earth, if Luis had shown himself to be more explosively disturbed, the film would have resembled less a recruitment poster for tolerance. But there are sequences here, like the ones involving men massing for work on street corners, or working the night shift washing dishes, that highlight a closed-off society too often neglected in the movies – not to mention in real life. Grade: B (Rated PG-13 for some violence, language, and brief drug use.)