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Review: A Better Life

Director Chris Weitz shines a light on illegal immigration

Jose Julian and Demian Bichir play father and son in A Better Life

Courtesy Merrick Morton/Summit Entertainment

Jose Julian and Demian Bichir play father and son in <i>A Better Life</i>.

Directed by Chris Weitz
Rated PG-13,  Runtime: 98 mins.
Stars: Demián Bichir, José Julián, Eddie 'Piolin' Sotelo

Don’t expect director Chris Weitz’s latest work, A Better Life, to be anything like his last box-office bonanza: New Moon, of the Twilight Saga.  A Better Life is a small film with a huge heart, and in it Weitz manages to confront the complicated subject of illegal immigration without taking sides or manipulating his viewers.  He does this by simply telling the story of one family, and keeping politics out of the picture.

Carlos Galindo, played by Demián Bichir (otherwise known as “the George Clooney of Mexican cinema”), is a 40-something single parent barely getting by as a gardener in East L.A.  Years earlier, he and his wife illegally crossed the California border from his native Mexico seeking a better life, and soon had a child who would enjoy U.S. citizenship by virtue of being born here. When the boy’s mother leaves them, Galindo’s dream shifts to making sure the now-teenaged Luis (played by newcomer José Julián) gets the better life, which means keeping him from the gangs that rule the schoolyard and the neighborhood.

Carlos sees his chance to get away from the troubled inner city when his boss decides to retire and offers to pass on his clients — if Galindo will buy his truck, fully stocked with landscaping tools. Carlos borrows the needed cash to seal the deal from his sister, who, having married an American, lives in a nicer part of town and works as a nurse. He excitedly gets behind the wheel of his own destiny.  But not only is it his sorry luck that, on his first day in his new position, a worker he’s hired steals the truck, tools and all — but Carlos can’t so much as report the crime to the police, because of his undocumented status.

He’s paper-less — without even a driver’s license — in a paper society.  Imagine such powerlessness.

Roger L. Simon, who was nominated for an Oscar for penning Enemies: A Love Story, wrote the original screenplay for A Better Life in 1989.  He says living in Los Angeles, he was compelled to tell the stories of the undocumented people he came into contact with on a daily basis, some of whom worked for him.  A Better Life allows the viewer to feel compassion for people we think we know by showing us that we don’t really know them at all.

At the same time, the film illuminates what connects us all: the power of family, and a father’s fierce love of a child.

Through gritty and sometimes documentary-style cinematography, Weitz offers a close-up view of the City of Angels.  He elicits fine performances from his actors.  He doesn’t naively offer solutions to America’s immigration problem, but he subtly allows us to explore its layered impact on the human experience.  New Moon may have been a big movie, but A Better Life is ginormous in its emotional depth.