Film Review: A Better Life

Important, heartfelt drama about the plight of responsible, work-focused illegals victimized by an unforgiving American bureaucracy deserves attention but, like its subject, faces a daunting reality.

Director Chris Weitz (About a Boy) has the best of intentions and nice execution in this drama about a Mexican illegal in East L.A. who struggles to survive and provide for his teenage son. Sadly, good intentions and an important message aren’t enough to fill seats. But A Better Life—too conventional and unhip for art-house embrace—certainly deserves a better life beyond theatrical.

Eric Eason’s script from Roger L. Simon’s story hits all the right marks and pushes all the right emotional and issue buttons in a not terribly inspired story of immigrant woe. Carlos (Demián Bichir) is an L.A. laborer living on a slippery slope as an illegal who struggles to get day jobs to support 14-year-old son Luis (José Julián), in danger of being lured into the local gangs and smitten by a high-school classmate, Ruthie (Chelsea Rendon).

Carlos toils as a landscaper for the Beverly Hills rich and, without the required insurance, often scales and trims the tall palm trees on their properties. When a pal offers to sell Carlos his pick-up truck, he hits up married sister Anita (Dolores Heredia) for a loan. Carlos gets the truck, but it is stolen by Santiago (Carlos Linares), an illegal laborer he recruits to help him on a job.

Together, Carlos and Luis follow clues to track down the culprit and the truck. These and sequences showing how a vulnerable Luis is wooed by local gangs provide good doses of engaging suspense. But, tragically, the desperate behavior of father and son to right a wrong and get back that truck brings on unwanted complications with the law.

Packing plenty of emotional punch, A Better Life, in its unpleasant depiction of pervasive attitudes toward illegals, does send home an important message. But the film is another hopeless case of preaching to the converted. So many elements of this fine film are just too fine—convincing acting, a serviceable but predictable score, solid production values—that a dreaded “tweener” destiny seems its fate. Not hip, edgy or original enough for the art house or commercial enough to grab mainstream interest, the film might falter. A Better Life needs to be seen, but that’s not the requisite for gaining filmgoer interest in these challenging times.