out of Five
Running time: 97
Emotionally engaging immigrant drama enlivened by strong performances from its two leads, but it's slightly undone by an overly predictable script that prevents any real surprises.
What's it all about?
Directed by Chris Weitz (American Pie, The Golden Compass), A Better Life stars Damian Bichir as Mexican gardener Carlos, an illegal immigrant who lives in Los Angeles with his 14-year-old son Luis (Jose Julian). Though Luis was born in the States, Carlos lives in fear of immigration officials (“La Migra”) and knows that even the slightest traffic offence could see him deported back to Mexico.
However, when Carlos is offered the chance to buy a truck and start his own gardening business, he decides to take the risk, largely because he's worried that Luis will be drawn into drugs or gangs if he doesn't provide a better life for the two of them. Unfortunately, the newly acquired truck is promptly stolen by a fellow immigrant, forcing Carlos and Luis to take drastic action.
Damian Bichir is excellent as the world weary Carlos, who lives his life in a state of near permanent exhaustion in order to provide for his son; the opening shot immediately sums up his situation by showing him crashed out on the living room couch that doubles as his bed. Jose Julian is equally good as Luis and the bond between the two is believable, well written and ultimately extremely moving.
This is obviously a long cherished project for Weitz and it's commendable that he has channelled his Hollywood clout into producing what is essentially an indie drama on a larger-than-usual budget. He also orchestrates some excellent scenes, whether it's a small, sharply written moment like Luis' encounter with a seen-it-all-before cop in the police station or the exciting sequence where they track down the truck (the closest the film comes to an action set piece).
The main problem with the film is that the script is entirely predictable from start to finish, which essentially removes any element of dramatic surprise. On top of that, the various clichés are heightened by a slightly overblown score from Alexandre Desplat.
In short, A Better Life is an emotionally engaging, if predictable immigration drama that's nonetheless worth seeing for the performances from the two leads.