Saturday, June 18, 2011

A Better Life

With a resume that includes American Pie, The Golden Compass, The Twilight Saga: New Moon and About a Boy, perhaps director Chris Weitz wasn't the ideal choice for a harsh polemic on modern immigration, mixed with heart-tugging father\son sentiment.  Or perhaps screenwriter Eric Eason couldn't quite decide which path to choose in telling the story of an East Los Angeles gardener trying to capitalize on that still golden promise of an American dream while trying to protect his son, and wish for the titular offering.  A Better Life, a well intentioned, preaching to choir tale comes across heavy handed and undernourished because it lacks the proper backbone in really delving into a subject that ought to rouse and provoke and anger.  Because of this reticence, it stands as an astoundingly powerful subject in search of a better film, one that needn't rely on preachy diatribes of the less fortunate (made by people richly fortunate), or obvious asides on hard-luck inner city living.  Perhaps, had there have a more ballsier approach, or perhaps even a simpler one, A Better Life would have earned the greater emotional response it so craves (and hell, might even make a small difference in these timely days of border controls), and whether the miscalculation can be attributed to one or all of it's well-intentioned crew, the sad truth remains that this is nothing more than a small, quietly manipulative message film coasting on the sentiment of it's subject, rather than pulling us forward with the power of it's story or characters.

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+

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