Theatrical Review: A BETTER LIFE

Rudie Obias

by: Rudie Obias
June 23rd, 2011

Writer: Eric Eason
Director: Chris Weitz
Cast: Demián Bichir, José Julián, Carlos Linares
Studio: Summit Entertainment

Chris Weitz surprised me on this one. From the filmmaker of THE TWILIGHT SAGA: NEW MOON comes a very small, intimate, and touching look at a father and son learning to understand each other against the backdrop of East Los Angeles. Weitz could have done any film after the financial success of the second film in the Twilight series, but he opted to do this one. For this, I admire Chris Weitz. That said, A BETTER LIFE is film that has its moments that come off as strong, but what bothers some viewers about this film is that it doesn’t take its themes and ideas and explore them any deeper than it should.

A BETTER LIFE is the story of a father and son, Carlos (Demián Bichir) and Luis (José Julián) Galindo. Carlos is a Mexican immigrant, living illegally in California. He works various odd jobs as a landscaper. He has a good working relationship with another landscaper who tries to sell him his truck so he can build a better life for himself and son. Carlos is hesitant to buy the truck, which would give him an advantage of taking more jobs, because he can’t afford the truck and, most importantly, it might impair his ability to stay under the radar of the U.S. government. He gets a loan from his sister and eventually buys the truck. His son, Luis was born in the states and goes to high school, but he’s troubled. He doesn’t have a mother because she married another man for a green card and financial security, and he doesn’t have a strong father figure in his life. He struggles with school and gangs and can be easily led down the wrong path of crime and violence.

The most interesting aspect about A BETTER LIFE is the relationship between a father and son. It flourishes when Carlos and Luis are forced to search for the truck when it gets stolen. Seeing two generations of this family is very engaging to watch; it is easy to get immersed in their characters and become invested in their decisions, but this movie falls a bit short when their search becomes more procedural than introspective. When their search takes this minor shift, it feels like circumstances lead the characters to serve the plot, which feels false and forced in. Interestingly, the film eventually shifts back to being character-based and therefore saving it, and delivering the tone it promised at the beginning.

There’s a strong sequence involving the search, which leads the pair into a fiery Hispanic nightclub. The man who stole the truck works at this nightclub as a dishwasher. What goes on in this nightclub is highly effective, and Weitz uses it to create tension between the audience and the screen and, in this way, we are put into the shoes of Carlos, who is the one who goes into the nightclub. A well-screened viewer might recall Wim Wender’s PARIS, TEXAS in this scene, which I feel is intentional, taking in the subject matter of the film. This element serves the film very well, taking it from a questionable character piece to a nuanced development of a father and son relationship.

But what could be taken away from this film? Is that there was not enough to string along the sub-themes? The main theme of the film, which holds pretty well, is the father and son relationship. Getting down the brunt of what makes them distant, which leads into why they’re starting to bond again, is well-conceived. Carlos works too much to be there for Luis. Luis needs a strong father in his life to reach his potential. Carlos and Luis regret the loss of Luis’ mother. What the film hints at, but only examines on the surface, is illegal Mexican immigration. This film could’ve done even better if it served this theme as well as its father/son relationship. It hints and deals with this theme in only small doses and is very piecemeal, which is strange when the entire third act is built around this idea, but it doesn’t firmly pay off, we only get a whimper.

Still, A BETTER LIFE is a better movie than one would except the follow-up of the director of a Twilight movie would be. It’s far more interesting, spending time and seeing the dynamic of a father and son coming to terms with the fact that they are all that they have in life, despite at times, not wanting each other. A BETTER LIFE is a good side note to big summer action and comic book movies and is recommended. It’s a good precursor to more character and emotionally driven movies that are sure to come out this fall.

Grade: B-

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