A stale but scrupulously structured anecdote, A Better Life seems intended as an eye-opener for the send-’em-back American racist. Directed by Chris Weitz (son of Susan Kohner, daughter of Lupita Tovar) and written by Manito filmmaker Eric Eason, this semi-outsider’s vision of an illegal immigrant’s struggle to reclaim a stolen truck in Los Angeles sets its sainthood-vying tone with its opening shot of its main character, Carlos (Demián Bichir), bathed in the warm burnt-sienna light of the morning sun. From the couch he sleeps on to the gardens he tends for Los Angeles’s richest, Carlos appears to literally rise above his desperate station: Shot, one might say trapped, by Weitz in rigorously symmetrical angles, the man traverses every frame of the film as if on an upward diagonal path—even after there are no more hills to scale with the truck he purchases from a friend with money borrowed from his now-legal sister.
Save for its loving, plaintive, and thorough tour of the seldom-filmed East L.A., A Better Life is, top to bottom, derivative—of Polanski in its direction and of Bicycle Thieves in its plot (even Alexandre Desplat’s gussy score suggests Angelo Badalamenti playing Mariachi Night). Carlos’s contentious bonding time with his aloof teenage son, Luis (José Julián), as the pair tries to retrieve their lost truck plays out like a medicinal lesson plan for all fathers of color, distant or not, and their hard-to-reach, culturally shamed children, while Bichir, a fine actor, at times struggles to make credible the script’s infuriating insistence on having Carlos immediately and unrealistically follow much of his Spanish-language lines with a useful English translation.
At the same time, the film doesn’t lack for integrity, educating its white audience on the desperation of living as an illegal in this country entirely from the perspective of its non-white characters (gringos are practically phantoms, conspicuous by their near-absence from Carlos’s daily grind), and without the self-righteousness of guiltier, Crash-ier films such as Trade and Crossing Over. And however contrived Luis’s cultural awakening may come about, the filmmakers resist any knee-jerk condemnation of the gang life that almost seduces the teenager. A beautiful scene inside one tattooed thug’s home, during which two little, near-toothless cholitas sing a song for their fathers, is an especially audacious depiction of the sense of familia a gang can provide when one’s real family can not.