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Better Life, A (2011)
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by Brett Gallman

"Searching for the American Dream in a pickup truck."
4 stars

Three different portrayals of Los Angeles are on display in "A Better Life." There's the one experienced by immigrant gardener Carlos Galindo (Demian Bichir), which is marked by day-to-day struggles just to work by the sweat of his brow. Meanwhile, his son Luis (Jose Julian) is left to his own devices in the gang-infested ghetto where he occasionally attends school. Finally, there's the Los Angeles that pops up on an episode of "MTV Cribs," where the rich and famous live glamorously; though it's technically within viewing distance for both Carlos and Luis, it's hanging far in the distance, a symbol of the better life promised by the film's title. And while that paradise is far removed from them, all three visions of the city intertwine deftly in this slice-of-life film about rugged perseverance and generational understanding.

Director Chris Weitz ("About a Boy") is back in more familiar, subdued waters after dabbling in bigger projects such as "The Golden Compass" and "Twilight." He helms Carlos and Luis's story with ease by capturing the somewhat grim reality of their daily struggles to just get by. Carlos's life especially is one marked by minor victories, such as simply acquiring odd jobs and convincing Luis to actually go to school. A major coup would be purchasing a truck--not so much for its utilitarian purposes, but for what it symbolizes: independence. With it, he's no longer one of the rabid masses on the street corner begging for a job; instead, he's the one plucking his help from that same corner.

Because he is so good-hearted and perhaps too trusting, his choice in a sidekick backfires with the film's first big gut-punch and sends both father and son on a detective hunt. They not only have to track down the stolen truck, but also retrace their steps to figure out just where they lost each other. Like any teenage boy, Luis is a bit resentful of his lot in life, and the lingering gang influence possibly provides the sort of family he's never really had since his father is rarely around due to his work. But it's important to note that he isn't a bad kid--far from it, in fact, and much of Carlos's struggle is borne out of his desire to keep him that way. At the moment we meet him, he's certainly dangling on the precipice, as he's prone to fighting and getting suspended from school.

The portion of the film that finds him and his father bonding over their mutual desperation is most effective. One gathers that Carlos is able to teach Luis a lifetime's worth of lessons over the course of a couple of days that eventually finds them on the wrong side of the law (well, more so than usual for Carlos, who is an illegal immigrant). Bichir finds just the right emotional timbre in the lead role; the script does a lot of leg work by highlighting the dogged nobility of his character, but Bichir finds a pitch-perfect pathos that's somewhere between world-weary and desperately clinging to optimism. You can feel the defeat in his face as he watches his truck get stolen right before his eyes.

That's a big moment played small, which is indicative of the refined, unassuming dignity that Weitz brings to the production. Instead of relenting and allowing this to turn into one emotive fireworks display after another, he paints with smaller, emotional moments, such as the one where Carlos realizes that the man who wronged him is driven by a similar desperation. Even the film's emotional crescendo resists becoming an overly weepy affair, as both Weitz and Bichir keep it reigned in just enough so that this doesn't suddenly become overly sentimental pap.

Going that route could have been easy, and "A Better Life" is already walking through a pseudo-political minefield with its treatment of immigrants. However, it navigates it well and never becomes a preachy indictment or a political platform, as all sides are treated genuinely; there a lot of decent people forced to do tough things in this film, and, ultimately, the central struggle transcends borders and race in this restrained but affecting family odyssey.

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originally posted: 11/15/11 20:52:38
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User Comments

5/19/12 bert kaplan powerful, moving, well acted-worth seeing 5 stars
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  24-Jun-2011 (PG-13)
  DVD: 18-Oct-2011


  DVD: 18-Oct-2011

Directed by
  Chris Weitz

Written by
  Eric Eason

  Demian Bichir
  Jose Julian
  Dolores Heredia
  Joaquin Cosio
  Carlos Linares

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