A Better Life (2011)
A Better Life
Director: Chris Weitz
Writers: Eric Eason, Roger L. Simon
Cast: Demián Bichir, José Julián, Eddie 'Piolin' Sotelo, Joaquín Cosio, Nancy Lenehan, Gabriel Chavarria, Bobby Soto, Chelsea Rendon, Trampas Thompson, Tim Griffin, Valorie Hubbard, Dolores Heredia, Isabella Rae Thomas, Carlos Linares, Robert Peters
Synopsis: A gardener in East L.A. struggles to keep his son away from gangs and immigration agents while trying to give his son the opportunities he never had.
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some violence, language and brief drug use
Sometimes life isn't always fair...
Whether you agree or disagree with illegal immigration, "A Better Life" delves into the sad reality of what many Mexicans struggle with when moving into the United States, to start a better life. The film is directed by Chris Weitz, who some might remember from one of his previous works like "Twilight: A New Moon." However, I wouldn't judge him based solely on that movie, as he also directed such great films like "About a Boy." Therefore, he's certainly a better director than many "twilight haters" think, and "A Better Life" certainly goes above and beyond to prove that.
The film follows an illegal immigrant named Carlos (Demián Bichir), who moved into the United States with his wife several years ago, to start a new life; possibly a better one. He works literally day to day to make ends meet. Although he's not exactly living the life of luxury, but he somehow manages to make enough to get by. He works various odd jobs as a gardener for wealthy suburban families in Los Angeles, California.
One of the main people that he works with is Blasco (Joaquín Cosio), who owns a truck and gardening business. Needless to say, they're both very good friends, and one day he tells Carlos how he plans to move back to Mexico because he's saved up enough money to live out the rest of his life owning his own farm back there. It's from here, Blasco offers Carlos a chance to buy his truck, his tools and his client list for a reasonable price. Sadly, Carlos can't afford it, so he's forced to decline. Plus, Carlos doesn't even have a driver's license either, so any police stop would mean a possible deportation out of this country. But as luck would have it, Carlos' sister willingly offers to lend him the money to take advantage of Blasco's offer, as she wants him to try to build a better life for himself, and reluctantly Carlos accepts.
As the film plays out, Carlos is portrayed as a very sympathetic and noble character. Granted, he can be bit naive at times, but one can tell he always has the best of intentions at heart. After his wife leaves him, he's been struggling to make ends meet, while raising his fifteen year old son, Luis (José Julián), as a single parent. They live in a fairly beat down old house, in a neighborhood that isn't exactly the safest one out there if you can catch my drift. Like most teenagers, Luis can be a bit rebellious at times, and hasn't joined a gang yet. However, the temptations to join a gang are there for him, as his best friend wants to join one, and his girlfriend is related to a few gang members as well. Needless to say, the pressure is there, but it's never over played to the point that it comes off as too preachy, and over dramatic. No, this movie tends to favor more grounded realism in it's portrayal, and I wouldn't have it any other way.
Although Luis is shown to be quite rebellious towards his father, as he not only skips school various times, but he also gives his father a hard time whenever he refuses to give him money by saying things like, "I'll jack a little old lady." At the beginning of the film, Luis sees his father as something of a loser, and often questions why anyone would want to start a family when they're as poor as they are. As Luis eloquently says, "What's the point?" Not an easy question to answer, but you can definitely sense that he's a lost soul that wants a better life than his father can currently provide. However, in spite of all these things, you can still sense a deep rooted respect for his father, as the film plays out. Don't get me wrong, Luis is not a bad kid. No, he's just frustrated and confused about his situation in life, as I'm sure any of us would growing up in the same predicament.
To get back to the rest of the story, Carlos takes advantage of Blasco's offer, and takes over the gardening business, with hopes that it could lead to a better life for himself and his son. Unfortunately, as I stated earlier, Carlos has a very big heart, and he's always has good intentions, but he can sometimes prove to be a bit too naive. Why do I say this? Well, I'll get into that now. After taking over the gardening business, he drives up among the street corner where many illegal immigrants stand by in hopes to find work if only to make ends meet.
He happens to pick a man named Santiago (Carlos Linares), who looks relatively thin in stature to help him with the business for the day. Back when Blasco ran the gardening business, he had a system in place where he would make Carlos climb up the trees to trim them for various wealthy families; meanwhile Blasco would remain on the ground. In one particular scene, it shows Carlos climbing up a palm tree, and then trimming it, while Blasco and his client watch. Why am I bringing this up? Trust me, I'm about to make a very good point, so please bare with me. After Carlos takes over, he goes back to the very same house that has the palm tree. But unlike Blasco, he tells Santiago to remain on the ground, while he goes up to trim the tree like he normally used to do for Blasco. Want to know what happens here? Once he's far up the tree, Santiago immediately breaks for the truck filled with the tools, and steals it while Carlos is stuck way up that palm tree. Sure, Carlos sees him, but it takes him a good while to get down safely to where he can actually stop him. Unfortunately, he's too late, as Santiago has driven off with the truck. You see why I said Carlos is a bit naive?
Don't get me wrong, I think Carlos is a highly resourceful individual, and he's a very noble character. In fact, I can see why the Academy nominated Demian, in the first place for this role, as he certainly delivers a powerful performance here. However, given the circumstances, Carlos' biggest mistake was being far too trusting when he agreed to bring Santiago on to join him. In today's society, you can't be too careful these days. Granted, his heart was in the right place, but he was far too trusting in that given situation if you ask me. I do apologize if this sounds cruel, but I'm merely stating an observation.
Long story short though, Carlos and his son inevitably embark on a journey together to try to get the truck back. Their long quest takes them all over the city, and even through some of L.A's most gang filled territories like "Crypt Land." Throughout the movie, we get a more intimate look inside the characters themselves, and even see Luis gain a deeper respect for his father over time. Sure, they argue a bit among each other at times, but in the end, they both ultimately care about each other.
Although Santiago may seem like a proverbial jerk from what I described earlier, but the film somehow makes it to where you can never bring yourself to hate him. No, like a Miyazaki anime film, the characters are vastly complex and layered, to the point where there is no clear cut villain. And even if there is a villain, the antagonist is portrayed in such a way that you can actually sympathize with their plight anyway. Sure, you don't have to agree or like Santiago's actions, but the movie shows that he wasn't doing it because he wanted to take advantage of Carlos' kindness. No, he merely did it out of desperation to survive in today's society. Granted, the end doesn't justify the means, but he still manages to come off as a sympathetic character nonetheless.
Indeed, this is arguably one of the deepest and best dramas that I've ever seen. It not only tells us a great epic story, but the tone and feel of the movie is grounded in reality that one can't help but question how much of this paints a picture of what most illegal immigrants suffer through on a daily basis in the United States.
Although the film does suffer from being a bit predictable at times, and the language constantly shifts from Spanish to English, and back again, without a moment's notice. Therefore, if you do decide to watch this movie, I'd highly recommend that you either have the subtitles on throughout, or learn how to speak both English and Spanish beforehand. .
Sadly, I doubt seriously this movie is going to gain a lot of recognition; even in spite of it's recognition by the Oscars. However, it's definitely a great film that's worth checking out. If you're a "Twilight" hater, and choose to boycott this movie simply because of Weitz's involvement, then you're definitely going to be missing out on something special here. There's no resemblance of that series here, as Weitz's only intention is to tell a deep emotional story about a father that only yearns to provide his child a better life. In the end, isn't that what most parents want for their children? Overall, I'd give this movie a three and a half out of four.