A well acted and nicely detailed if somewhat familiarly plotted immigrant drama, Chris Weitz’s A Better Life shines a light on the razor’s edge of poverty, in which one simple accident or slip-up can send the undocumented working poor tumbling into bankruptcy, criminal desperation and/or terrible moral compromise.
Single father Carlos Riquelme (Demián Bichir, quite good) lives in East Los Angeles and works as a gardener. His son Luis (José Julián) is a good if lonely and at-risk kid, surrounded by potentially dangerous influences. When Carlos’ truck gets stolen, it sets off a chain of events that threaten to tear him and his son apart.
It sounds perhaps weird or counterintuitive, but a bit less interaction between Carlos and his son would have actually spoken volumes about his feelings for him. In ditching gangland menace and concentrating more on Carlos’ pent-up inner struggle and feelings regarding his perpetual absenteeism, occupational shame and the like — powerful adult feelings that kids, who typically don’t come to regard their parents as actual people until sometime their 20s if ever, can’t understand or appreciate — the movie would till new narrative ground.
As is, A Better Life‘s tonal consistency and cultural and geographical authenticity are amongst its strongest selling points, particularly for fans of films like Quinceañera, Biutiful and In America; it’s firmly rooted in a place that communicates social substratum without beating you over the head with it. Immigrant life is wildly different depending on region, but the specificity of this portrait still trades in universal emotions. (Summit, PG-13, 97 minutes)