Jun 24 2011
Filmed on Location in Los Angeles, “A Better Life” Fictionalizes Harsh Reality Facing Immigrant Community
Jonathan Kim is an independent film critic who writes and produces film reviews for Uprising and other outlets. He is a former co-producer at Brave New Films.
A Better Life
After Chris Weitz finished directing the latest ‘Twilight’ sequel, he could’ve chosen to make any film he wanted. But instead of some megabudget sci-fi fantasy, Weitz used his cache to make a movie honoring his Mexican roots from a screenplay that had been languishing for 25 years. That movie is ‘A Better Life’, which puts a human face on the millions of illegal immigrants who we rely on every day to feed us, build and maintain our homes, and take care of our children by telling the story of an undocumented gardener, played by Mexican star Demian Bichir, and the lengths he’ll go to in order to provide a future for his American-born teenage son.
Bichir plays Carlos, who has been living illegally in Los Angeles for years. He works tirelessly as a gardener, maintaining the yards of LA’s wealthy, until he returns to his small house to sleep on the couch in his clothes, allowing his son, Luis (played by newcomer José Julian), to use the house’s only bedroom.
Luis, who looks down on his father and has been growing apart from him for years, has been slacking at school and is increasingly feeling the pull of LA’s Latino gangs, especially from his best friend (played by Bobby Soto) and Luis’ girlfriend (played by Chelsea Rendon), whose family is largely made up of gang members. But when Carlos’ boss offers to sell Carlos his pickup truck, he sees an opportunity to own his own business and make enough money to move to a neighborhood with better schools.
But soon after Carlos buys the truck using a big loan from his sister, it gets stolen, leading to what sometimes feels like a detective or crime thriller playing out in slow motion as Carlos and Luis traverse the Mexican neighborhoods of Los Angeles by bus to track down the truck. While the objectives in crime thrillers are often suitcases full of cash, car trunks full of drugs, or a murderer on the loose, the stakes in ‘A Better Life’ feel like they couldn’t be higher, with the stolen truck representing Carlos’ last chance to save his son from jail or an early death, where the most minor brush with the law could cause Carlos to be deported back to Mexico and separated from Luis.
But at it’s heart, ‘A Better Life’ is the story of a father’s love for his son, which shines through every moment of Bichir’s powerful performance, as Carlos and Luis’ quest to find the truck gives them a chance to spend the kind of time together that Carlos’ long hours haven’t allowed. In the process, Luis learns valuable lessons about his roots, as well as what it means to be a father and how to treat people with respect. Filmed at over 70 locations across Los Angeles, ‘A Better Life’ also provides a glimpse into the lives of Mexican Americans and illegal immigrants, including a Mexican rodeo, an apartment converted to a makeshift dorm for undocumented workers, and a home where gang members are raising their families.
At a time when republicans are attempting to demonize and scapegoat illegal immigrants for America’s problems, ‘A Better Life’ reveals the truth that so many immigrants and their descendents, including myself, already know — that immigrants, legal or not, are perhaps the purest reflection of the American dream, which isn’t to become a millionaire, but to improve the lives of their families through hard work. ‘A Better Life’ is a moving, beautiful film that I’ve thought of often since seeing it, and it should be required viewing for Republicans, who should be asked if they would act differently from Carlos if the future of their children was at stake.
‘A Better Life’ is rated PG-13 and opens today in New York and LA. So if you live there, please see it opening weekend to help ‘A Better Life’ get the wider distribution it deserves.