Tuesday, July 12, 2011

A Better Life

When a director’s resume includes, but is not limited to, movies with titles like Down to Earth, The Golden Compass and The Twilight Saga: New Moon, audiences don’t sit around waiting for said director’s moment of please-take-me-seriously prestige to show itself.

But Chris Weitz’s A Better Life deserves every accolade – of which there are many – currently being thrown its way.  It’s a film with a stance, but not overtly so.  It’s a film with a heart, but not in a way that’s melodramatically overbearing.  In short, A Better Life, far more than Weitz’s other films (which also include About a Boy and American Pie), is a film with a soul.

With so many heavy assertions and strong pontifications coming out of Hollywood message movies recently, it is wholly refreshing to see a movie that deals with such a hot-bottom topic (that of illegal immigration), in such a micro way.

Carlos (Demián Bichir) is a quiet, honest man, working all day every day in East Los Angeles, landscaping rich people’s homes.  He keeps to himself, doing the worked that’s required, eating from small food carts, never making a fuss.  At night, he comes home and sleeps on the couch, letting his 14-year-old, angst-ridden son Luis (José Julián) occupy the only bed in their small home.

Carlos’ boss, looking to retire and move back home to Mexico, offers to sell his landscaping truck, tools included, to Carlos for a modest price.  But Carlos fears that, because he is an illegal immigrant with no driver’s license, taking over the truck could put him at risk for being deported.

If you’ve seen the trailer, and I really hope you haven’t, then you know Carlos soon finds himself in a bit of a pickle, which for our purposes will go left unexplained.

On the surface, A Better Life is a film about immigration; about the hardships and follies an illegal immigrant has to go through in this country to attain what the title suggests.  But, thankfully, the film never takes a deliberate stance, there are no gasping-for-breath monologues about how bad Carlos has it and how he prays that everything will work out.  The film is far too subtle for that.

Dig deeper and you find that A Better Life is, more significantly, a heartfelt father and son story. Carlos spends the little free time he has tending to his tiny garden and sleeping.  He trusts that his steady work ethic will set a good example for Luis, a hothead who is inches away from being peer pressured into joining a gang.  Luis, like most 14-year-olds, is angry at life.  He’s mad that his dad is working all the time, mad that his mother isn’t around, mad that he goes to a shit school, and so on. Also, like most 14-year-olds, he takes his teenage aggression out on his father, who casually dismisses his son’s ploys for help, almost to a fault.

Now, we’ve seen this all countless times – the mad as hell teenager butting heads with his father – and there is only one real reason to attempt it yet again: casting great actors.

In his first film role, José Julián does steady, multilayered work as Luis.  He nails the teenage angst well beyond what is required in the script.  His subtle transformation from angry to confused to curious to vengeful to remorseful is perfectly graceful.  But Julián is just one half of the puzzle.
On the other end, we have Demián Bichir, who now justly deserves to be billed as great.  Bichir (who did fine work as Castro in Soderbergh’s Che, and Mary-Louise Parker’s drug lord husband on Weeds), does understated wonders with Carlos.  He’s a man confounded by his status (as an immigrant, as a man, and as a father) but puts in the work despite it all.  He’s a man that, I think, realizes he’ll never have what he wanted for himself, but still has a chance to give that to his son.  He’s a man of love, a man of soul. 

Near the end of the film, Bichir delivers a monologue with such restrained passion, that I was moved to tears.  It would be selfishly simple to scream and shout and let the tears flow wild, but Bichir holds back, in a way that is honest and authentic beyond words.  A Better Life isn’t a great film, but it’s anchored by a flawless performance, one that will surely top award’s lists at the end of this year. A-

(Note: I made slight mention of the film's trailer earlier, but to be clear, if you can avoid the trailer, then do.  It shamefully reveals far too much of the film’s plot.)

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