A Better Life tells the story of Carlos Galindo (Demian Bichar), an undocumented gardener getting by in East Los Angeles. As the title suggests, his dream is to provide a better life for his fourteen-year-old son, Luis (Jose Julian), who isn’t taking school seriously and is perilously close to joining a gang. Although he doesn’t have a driver’s license, Carlos is coaxed into purchasing his friend’s truck, complete with gardening tools to start his own business with. He was able to pay for it all after receiving a loan from his sister, Anita (Dolores Heredia), who he promises he will repay in a year, maybe less. Just when it all seems to be heading in the right direction, Carlos picks the wrong day laborer from off the curb, and his truck gets stolen. With Luis reluctantly at his side, Carlos goes on a dangerous citywide search for his truck.
As the title character, Johnny Depp observed in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood that filmmaking isn’t about the tiny details, but about the big picture. I don’t know if the real Ed Wood said this, but if he did, then I would argue that he was half right. I interpret “the big picture” to be plot, character, and theme, which are indeed vital to the success of a mainstream film. That being said, details are just as important; visual authenticity serves as an emotional anchor, a way for the audience to better understand and identify with the story. The issue with A Better Life is that, like Wood, Chris Weitz plays favorites with his directorial style. Unlike Wood, he takes the exact opposite approach: He fusses over the tiny details but neglects the big picture. If you strip away the padding, you’ll find a story that’s exceedingly simple and lacking any real insight.
In this case, the details are reflected in Weitz’s insistence on cultural and geographic authenticity. Indeed, the film is, visually, a very accurate depiction of Los Angeles, and I know because I’ve lived there my entire life. I’ve seen laborers standing on curbs all morning long, waiting for someone to pull over. I’ve passed by taco trucks and young men hanging around cars. I’ve noticed gardeners pulling weeds, pruning bushes, and climbing palm trees. Weitz relied on Rev. Gregory Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries (a youth program and small business which employs former gang members and at-risk teens) to guide him and his crew towards various Los Angeles inner cities, maximizing the cultural realism. The filmmakers even went as far as altering the dialogue to reflect the location-specific lingo.
All this is good, but ultimately, it doesn’t make the story any less simple. Does that mean the movie is bad? No, it doesn’t. Simple though it may be, the story is engaging and heartfelt. Its leading performances by Bichar and Julian have earned it points, and rightfully so; not only are they effective individually, they also have believable onscreen chemistry as father and son. Carlos is an uncomplicated character; he wants to start his own business in order to (1) send his son to a better school, and (2) hire a decent lawyer to make him a legal citizen. He does not want to go back to Mexico – there are no opportunities for him there. He’s a decent and moral man, abiding by the unspoken rules of deal-making; if you help him out, he will reward you, and vice versa. He’s not in it for fame and fortune. In fact, he would like nothing more than to be invisible.
Luis is not so easy to define. His initial aloofness suggests he would rather join a gang than be a Hispanic stereotype. As the film progresses, we see a process at work; he’s torn between a life as a street thug and loyalty to his father. There’s an interesting moment midway through the film when father and son attend a rodeo; a song begins playing, and Carlos reminds Luis that his mother, who has long since left the picture, used to sing it to him when he was a baby. Luis doesn’t want to talk about his mother, although he does ask his father a serious question: “Why did you have me? Why do all these poor people have babies? What’s the point?” After a tense pause, Carlos’ only response is, “Don’t even say that.” Rest assured, he will eventually answer the question, but only after a series of events I won’t reveal.
Some may think that the film is a response to the debate over immigration, although I would argue that, at heart, it’s really a sentimental father/son story. There’s nothing innately wrong with this – it’s no more or less than what it is. The final shot is the only point at which one can glean a political statement, and even then, it’s open to interpretation. It probably couldn’t have ended any other way, given the overtly emotional direction the story had been going in. The long and short of it is, A Better Life is a serviceable film that has a lot of style but not much in the way of substance. For Weitz, the film marks his third outing as a solo director, following the wonderful but overlooked fantasy epic The Golden Compass and the teen melodrama The Twilight Saga: New Moon. This doesn’t say much about his newest effort, although he is making some interesting choices.
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