Saturday, June 18, 2011
A Better Life
Demian Bichir (he was on Weeds, and played Fidel Castro in Steven Soderbergh's two-part Che) plays Carlos Galindo, an undocumented East LA resident. He works as a gardener and is raising his fourteen-year-old son Luis (Jose Julian), a somewhat caricatured youth that's reminiscent of any adolescent-angst ridden television show or after-school special, the only difference here being the Latino bent. Carlos, through gumption and a little charity buys a truck, thinking this will be the thing that will lead to a better life. The early scenes are cross-cut with Carlos' attempts to purchase said truck, while Luis is confronted with possibilities of joining a neighboring gang. The truck gets stolen. There's perhaps a bit of an over-reliance of The Bicycle Thief, as Weitz juxtaposes the loss of an automobile as a metaphor for the entire modern immigrant experience, just as the masterful Vittorio De Sica used a bicycle theft for commentary of then modern 1940s Italian hardship. Unfortunately here, the message overplays the drama and everything feels like mouthpieces for an agenda.
A bigger problem dramatically is that Carlos is not much of a character at all; he's rote and one-note, and while Bichir proves a gifted performer-- there's so little meat to it. A more difficult, ballsier approach would never have made Carlos a man of such high minded (if naive) nobility. Every scene shows the man taking the high road, and even while son Luis has bouts of anger and hostility, both characters are modulated with such uncomfortable passiveness. Again, it speaks to an agenda. Rather than a hard, sobering look at the challenges that many face in this country (and especially California) with a clear-eyed, warts and all humanity, A Better Life extols the images of saintly martyrs stuck in a maleficent system. That might be enough to light the fires of the liberals with the guiltiest hearts, or perhaps even excite the fans of the similarly hot-headed Crash (2005), but there's an aching disconnect, and a sense of false sincerity to A Better Life that belittles all the good intentions. C+