By Natasha Samreny
“I wanted you to be able to be anything you wanted to be. That would make me feel worthy.”
A Better Life mesmerizes. Father and son share one life while their separate desires for something different drive them apart. Carlos Galindo (Demián Bichir) loses his job, and his son Luis (José Julián) seems to be losing his way. While Carlos does everything he can to maintain, Luis does all he can to avoid any connection with the life his father is struggling to keep.
Paycheck, a safe roof over his child’s head and making it in America—it’s been years since Carlos first came to the U.S. with his wife. Now she’s gone, his sister is here, and every day the tired father exists through the same routine: get up, go to work, maintain other people’s lawns, come home and fall asleep in the same dirt-colored clothes he wakes up with. Apá takes the couch while mijo gets the bed, and sometimes before the young teen rises, his father watches him sleep.
It’s a long drive from east to west Los Angeles where the nice houses call for day laborers to shape and trim their sprawling lawns. Carlos’s work partner Blasco Martinez (Joaquín Cosio) owns the truck and tools so he owns their landscaping business. When Blasco decides to sell, Carlos is out of a job until his sister Anita (Dolores Heredia) gives her brother the money she and her husband saved up over the years to take care of their own little family. Anita doesn’t ask her cheap husband because he’d probably say no. But this is it—one day and $12,000 later, Carlos owns a business—he drives his family’s livelihood around in the bed of a blue truck.
An illegal immigrant, Carlos risks everything to buy that blue truck: money, family, and the safety of anonymity. But he risks losing everything if he doesn’t. While Luis appears oblivious to the battle apá is fighting, he’s dealing with his own pressures.
The son’s looks are so telling, but their motives are unclear at first. Each time his father opens up, Luis shoves back with a wall. We learn that Mom left when he was little, Luis’s best friend Facundo (Bobby Soto) and girlfriend Ruthie (Chelsea Rendon) want him to jump into the gang her family represents. Growing up in East L.A. with his father gone all day and no mother at home, his most viable options stare Luis in the face: work on other people’s yards or join a gang.
Exquisite. The writing, directing, staging, performing, editing and production of A Better Life is exquisite. This is one of those films where good delivery would have passed because the story is strong (developed by writer Roger L. Simon and screenplay adapter Eric Eason). But director Chris Weitz (also About a Boy, the Twilight saga’s New Moon, and the American Pie films) developed the hell out of this film.
They shot on location in the Hispanic East Side of L.A. I’m not Mexican and I’ve never been to L.A., it felt real. As a Spanish-speaker, when I hear slang I’m not even familiar with, I know it’s specific to culture and location. Weitz doesn’t fall back a drive-by to illustrate the surrounding violence Luis has grown accustomed to; he doesn’t show the gang beating Facundo survives to underscore the approaching reality of Luis’s life options. He doesn’t need to. You can feel the authenticity of the on-location cinematography (Javier Aguirresarobe)—through the unforgiving hardness of the cement curb where Latin day laborers wait in the hot sun for a chance, by the unaffected look of non-descript conversations surrounding Carlos and Luis on the bus, and from the mood surrounding the black market garage and barbed-wire fence father and son cross to take back their stolen truck.
Editor Peter Lambert (also New Moon alum) paces the movie like music. Looking back, every creative decision seems culturally researched and diligently prepared by cast and crew. But the final product plays naturally like a bittersweet succession pulled unquestioningly from the timelines of Carlos and Luis’s lives, and played back in a heart-wrenching reveal.
In the end, Carlos and Luis track down their blue truck, meeting arrest, deportation and finally separation. But for a moment, they walk into each other’s separated worlds. In those few days, their paradigms shift. The son criticizes every ilegal his dad calls friend. Luis is defensive with his street smarts, and as first-generation American he is not afraid to fight those he mistrusts, even yelling angrily for La Migra when they barge in on an apartment full of sleeping immigrants, in search of their stolen troca. Carlos fears enough for both of them, but soon he comprehends the roots of his son’s desperation and anger.
Despite the fact that they play characters whose relationship seems to be slipping away, we sense the connection between Julián and Bichir’s characters. They share a difficult history, and we feel it through Julián’s bottomless gazes and Bichir’s intuitive body language. This is Julián’s first feature film outside of the 2004 TV movie, Mi Verdad. Veteran actor Bichir played Fidel Castro in Che, and Emiliano Zapata in the mini-series Zapata: Amor en rebeldía. I highly recommend you watch A Better Life and consider buying it. The story is universal and the acting is superb.
This disc includes the option for Spanish language subtitles, and audio commentary with director Weitz and Bichir. Because of the serene, sound-respecting pace of much of the movie, watching with the commentary track isn’t annoying. The commentary is pretty interesting considering the film was shot on location with driven effort to incorporate slang and visual details specific to the very streets of the storyline. The filmmakers prove very aware of how music, language and sound develop the story’s color and dimension. Guided by music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas, Grammy-award-winning band Ozomatli performs an original song composed for the movie, entitled “Jardinero”. Matched with clips, the song tells the story of a gardener’s struggle for something better. Every day he works, to live, to reach his dreams, to obtain a better life