DVD Review - A Better Life

José Julián (left) and
Demián Bichir in "A Better Life"
I don't want to ascribe any political messages or agendas to this movie because I don't feel as if the movie is trying to send any political messages or push any agendas. The issue of illegal immigration from Mexico is a hot button one of which people watching this are sure to have thoughts, but, this movie at its core is not about that. It's about the relationship between a father and son, not unlike the relationships between many fathers and sons, as well as the cultural and generational differences in things like work ethic.

The only problem is a definition of terms. I don't know what the definition is of the term that is the title of this movie. Demián Bichir stars as Carlos, a day laborer in east Los Angeles. He's clearly an illegal immigrant from Mexico trying to get any work he can and save as much money as he can. He's trying to achieve a better life, but a better life than what?

He has a son named Luis, a teenager who was perhaps born in California. Carlos is a single father, raising Luis with only the help of his sister. Carlos doesn't have much, a one-bedroom bungalow. It's a small bedroom, but Carlos has given that bedroom to his son, while Carlos sleeps on the couch. Carlos would rather sleep uncomfortably than have his son do so. Yet, is this so much better than what he had or what was possible in Mexico?

Carlos is provided with a business opportunity. His friend offers to sell him a truck with supplies to operate and run a day laborer company himself. In order to do that Carlos needs a few thousand. He's able to borrow the money from his sister's husband. His sister gives him the money, saying that she wants him to have "a better life."

It's a sweet gesture and a sweet scene, and it was all well performed. I enjoyed the scene, but the one question I had is how do you define a better life. Considering the conditions that Carlos is in, it's a wonder what the conditions were in Mexico that compel him to never want to go back. Getting an education for his son and starting a business are things that could be accomplished in Mexico, one would assume, but if not, I almost feel like I need to be shown that.

Director Chris Weitz (About a Boy and Twilight Saga: New Moon) had an opportunity to do that at the end of this film, but he doesn't. All he shows is Carlos' determination to be in the United States, and that's fine, and by the end he has a clear reason to be, but a broader context would have been appreciated. Regardless, Bichir's performance as Carlos is what's most outstanding. Bichir, along with Weitz, and screenwriter Eric Eason, with a story by Roger L. Simon, have created a father character with whom you fall in love and whom you want to follow.

Carlos mainly does landscaping work, mowing lawns and etc. His signature act is climbing trees, very tall palm trees. The work may not be desirable to most, but Carlos takes pride in it. One person in particular who doesn't find it desirable is Carlos' son, Luis, played by José Julián. Luis wants money, lots of it, but he doesn't want to do his father's work, or possibly any work. In fact, Luis would rather get involved with a gang.

Instead of honest work, Luis ponders going about getting money or power through intimidation or violence. This is where the divide between Luis and Carlos begins. When difficult things happen, we see this divide and we see how the two have very different ways of dealing. When trouble comes, for example, Luis wants to run, whereas Carlos wants to face the music. When trying to get information from someone, Carlos wants to sit and talk in a civil fashion, whereas Luis wants to beat them up.

This divide between Carlos and Luis may be a cultural divide. Carlos seems closer to his Mexican heritage than Luis. It may also be a generational divide, as has been witnessed countless times before. This doesn't make this divide derivative but authentic, perhaps cliché, but again Bichir's and even Julián's performances absolutely sell it. As we watch this father and son grapple with the divide and possibly bridge the gap, we bridge it with them.

Five Stars out of Five.
Rated PG-13 for some violence, language and brief drug use.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 37 mins.

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