Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Review: "A Better Life"

"Let's go home."

With those words -- spoken at the very of the end of the film -- director Chris Weitz ("About a Boy") and screenwriter Eric Eason establish the underlying theme of their stark, sobering new drama, "A Better Life." It's about a gardener living in Los Angeles, trying to move up the economic ladder so he can send his teenage son to a better school away from the gangs and urban grime. A familiar American saga.

One problem: He's an illegal immigrant, and must spend his life struggling in the shadows.

This film is not a pro-open borders diatribe. Weitz and Eason use the immigration issue not as cheap agitprop but as the backdrop for a deep and truly moving human story about people caught in a web of screwy public policy and arbitrary enforcement.

Make no mistake, though: The cumulative effect of this story serves to bolster the view that people like this man are part of our national fabric, and deserve to stay here and thrive if they can.

Demián Bichir gives an amazing, Oscar-worthy performance as Carlos Galindo, a simple Mexican man who has been living in the U.S. for about 15 years. He speaks fluent English, works from dawn to dusk, and worries constantly about his son Luis (José Julián, in an astonishing film debut). His wife left long ago.

Carlos is faced with a dilemma, and an opportunity. His boss Blasco (Joaquín Cosio) has made enough money to return to Mexico and buy a ranch, and wants to sell his truck and business to Carlos. Carlos resists -- he likes things just as they are. He and Luis have a tiny house (Carlos sleeps on the couch), a tidy garden and steady if meager income. In a word: Stability.

But he cobbles together the money, borrowing a chunk from his sister, who married an American and got her green card. The moment when he drives the well-worn truck to meet Luis at his school and announces that he now owns it is a seminal one in their relationship. Luis is at that stage in teen life where his father is something to be ashamed of, and the glimmer of hope and respect in the boy's eyes is like gold to Carlos.

The next day, Carlos drives his truck to the corner of a local garden store where migrant workers loiter looking for work: He needs a helper. The beaming look on his face as eager men crowd into his window tells all you need to know: Six years earlier, it was Carlos waiting in this very spot to be picked by Blasco. He chooses a kind-faced fellow he previously met, and they begin trimming bushes, mowing lawns, etc.

In a year, Carlos figures, the debt on the truck will be paid off, he and Luis can move to a nicer home with a better school, and perhaps he can even afford to take weekends off to spend time with his son.
Disaster strikes when his helper steals the truck, and with it all of Carlos' hopes and dreams.

He and the boy begin searching desperately for the truck, traveling all over the city in a long sequence that deliberately recalls the great Italian film, "The Bicycle Thief." Here is another working-class man whose entire existence hinges on regaining possession of a mode of transport.

The added twist is that Carlos has nowhere to turn for help from the authorities. There's a pivotal scene right after the truck is stolen where he looks around desperately for a policeman, but after finding one realizes he cannot report the theft.

Through this journey, a man and son reach a breaking point in their small family, and threats from gangs and immigration authorities loom constantly. "A Better Life" is a harrowing epic writ small, a vision of our country's promise and failings.

Carlos Galindo personifies the American Dream, as it actually is rather than how we would like it to be. This is one of the best films of the year.

3.5 stars out of four

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