A Better Life (2011)
Directed by: Chris Weitz
Premise: An illegal immigrant (Demián Bichir) attempts to raise his teenage son (José Julián) while working as a gardener in Los Angeles.
What Works: This gritty story about an illegal immigrant and his son trying to survive is one of the most provocative portrayals of the American Dream in a motion picture in recent years. When a film deals with a hot topic like illegal immigration it is easy for a viewer to judge the picture based on how flush it is with his or her personal beliefs. That’s understandable but A Better Life should not simply be embraced or abandoned based upon meager political allegiances. This is a very good piece of filmmaking; the story is told briskly with some powerful visuals and it has a pair of great performances by Demián Bichir and José Julián. Bichir plays the father and he is a weathered but decent man doing the best he can in a difficult situation. The story sends him through dramatic highs and lows but the major arc of the story belongs to the son played by José Julián. His character is stuck between his father’s life of labor and the sense of privilege and entitlement that pop culture espouses. The way the story casts the relationship between Bichir and Julián’s characters is heartwarming but in an authentic way and the lessons that the young man must learn about life and about his father are tough but genuine. What A Better Life does by its end is to reimagine the immigrant story, which is one of the essential American narratives, and in the process offer a contemporary vision of those on their way in and what that means for those of us who are already here.
What Doesn’t: A Better Life establishes several subplots between José Julián’s character and his peers, including a girlfriend, a high school rival, and a local gang leader. These subplots are mostly resolved as Julian’s character matures over the course of the film but their conclusion misses opportunities for him to more concretely demonstrate how he has changed between the beginning and ending of the film. The ending may be problematic for some viewers. The conclusion is the right one for the film, and in some ways it is quite bold, but it does leave the viewer hanging in ways that are deliberately uncomfortable.
Bottom Line: A Better Life is a wonderful film about a father and a son reconnecting in their struggle to survive. As dramatic as the film gets in places, that melodrama is earned in the course of the story and it has an honesty and authenticity about its characters and its politics that make it worthwhile viewing.
Episode: #372 (January 22, 2012)