Saturday, January 28, 2012

A Better Life (2011)

Film aficionados may have been perplexed earlier in the week, when the Academy Award nominations were released, and the unfamiliar name of Demian Bichir was listed among the "Best Actor" candidates, alongside such "A-list" names as George Clooney and Brad Pitt. But the nomination, well deserved, brings to a light A Better Life, a movie filmed by Chris Weitz, which, in turn, attempts to bring immigration policies in the United States to light.

The premise of the movie is fairly simple. Carlos Galindo, played by Bichir, is an undocumented Mexican immigrant living in Los Angeles, and a single father who is the sole caretaker of his teenage son, Luis (played by Jose Julian.) The pair live in small one-bedroom flat, and Carlos makes his due gardening as part of a two-man crew with his friend, Blasco (Joaquin Cosio.) 

The two live in a rundown area of Los Angeles which is heavily influenced by gang activity. As Carlos is forced to work all day just to scrounge up enough money to make rent, he and his son barely know each other anymore. In fact, Luis is embarrassed by his father, and tells his friends that he will not end up like him, making a living "cutting lawns."  Ay a very vulnerable age in life, with no mother, and a father who works around at the clock, Luis seems like a prime suspect to be lured into a gang.

But, and hence the title of the movie, it is Carlos' goal to provide the opportunities to his son that he never had. He keeps telling him, over and over, almost like a broken record, that things will get better for them. That he will make enough money so they could move into a safer area, and enroll Luis into a better school. But one look from Luis clearly expresses that he does not believe his father.

The opportunity for a better life finally arrives when Blasco convinces Carlos to buy his truck, so he can begin his own gardening business. After accepting a generous loan from his sister Anita (played by Dolores Heredia), he makes the purchase, and from there, begins the chase of the American dream. 

Demian Bichir in A Better Life.
As an illegal immigrant, Carlos must display the utmost caution, for any action that warrants police attention would almost certainly result in deportation. So when his truck is stolen one day by a man who Carlos thought he could trust, named Santiago (Carlos Linares), he must go on a quest to get it back without the use of the police.

A Better Life may have an agenda, bringing misunderstood and often criticized American immigration polices to light, and putting a face on the issue with the help of Bichir, but at no point does anybody stand on a soapbox and complain about their situation. Carlos knows his situation, and all he wants to do is live a quiet, safe life so that he could provide for his son.

The other theme of A Better Life revolves around the rekindling of a relationship between father and son. Carlos and Luis travel all throughout Los Angeles, from decrepit area to decrepit area, and at the same time exposing the viewer to parts of the country that they will never make any plans to travel to. 

There is a ton of emotion in the film, but most of it goes unsaid. At one point, Luis poses the question to his father, "Why did you even have me?" as he wonders why poor people would bother procreating if they are just passing on their poor social status to their children. Carlos, who can't find the words to answer question, simply tells his son, "Don't even say that."

Jose Julian and Demian Bichir
Demien Bichir plays the part beautifully, giving us all of the emotion that we need in his facial expressions. He loves his son more than anything, even if he can't find the words to say it. It isn't until the end when he finally does find the words, in a tear-jerking scene where Carlos expresses all of the things he had previously held in, and answering all of Luis' questions at the same time. 

A Better Life is a Hollywood film that employs an all Hispanic cast. To add further authentication to his film, Weitz, an American, employed Homeboy Industries, a youth counseling program run by former gang members, to find the proper shooting locations to film his movie at. The screenplay, written by Eric Eason, incorporates the slang used by Mexican-Americans, using both Spanish and English, sometimes in the very same sentence.

The film is not forcing the viewer to take a side on immigration policies in the United States, but strives to convey the everyday happenings of those who risk it all to seek a better life in America. It's a film that stays very real, and portrays the issue in an imaginative, sympathetic way.

~ Review by Ddubbs

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