A BETTER LIFE Review:
- A note to all fellow tough guys, macho men, and would-be badasses: prepare to get uncontrollably misty-eyed and emotional while watching A BETTER LIFE. And movie fans, listen up: run out to see this one if it's playing at a theater near you, because this is one of those classic American stories, a moving, emotional, riveting story of father and son. A Better Life is a knockout of a movie - expertly directed, phenomenally acted, and packing a bigger emotional punch than any movie I've yet seen this year.
A Better Life is the story of Carlos Galindo and his son, Luis. Carlos is an illegal immigrant from Mexico living in east Los Angeles - he scrapes together a living by working as a gardner for rich residents of Beverly Hills. Carlos looks like the kind of person you see all the time here in LA and elsewhere - a hard worker, a quiet man, never wanting to draw undue attention to himself. Meanwhile, Luis - born in America - is a fifteen year old who is stuck in a poor school system, surrounded by crime, gangs, and drugs. Even as he's being pulled towards that life by his friends, Luis is starting to realize the sacrifices that his father is making so that he may lead, well, a better life. Still, Luis is in many ways a typical teenager - he's too busy thinking about his next makeout session with his girlfriend, Ruthie, to think too much about the bigger picture of where he's headed and how he can carve out a good future for himself. Early in the film, Carlos' boss at the landscaping company he works for tries to convince him to buy his truck, with all of his gardening tools included. The boss - also Mexican - has saved up enough money from his little landscaping business to buy a farm back in Mexico, and he's planning to leave the States. He tries to convince Carlos that if he spends the $12,000 to buy the truck and the tools, he can be his own boss, make back the money and more, and do right by him and his son. Of course, Carlos doesn't have that kind of money. And even if he did - would Carlos even want to have the truck? On one hand, it could be his ticket to a better life. On the other hand, it could be risky. If he was to get pulled over by a cop while driving the truck - what would happen then? Until now, Carlos has been content to fly under the radar - to be a simple laborer and nothing more. But here was a real opportunity to move up - to live the American Dream. And so Carlos is left to ponder what to do, how to make his life choices worthwhile for he and Luis.
What happens from there on out, I'll leave to you to discover, but man, is it ever an emotional rollercoaster. The story being told is a relatively simple one, but the way the story is told is pitch-perfect. The script saves its big speeches for the end - for most of the film, we simply get to know Carlos and Luis through little moments that give us real insight into their characters, and into their world. And - wow - the movie contains an absolute powerhouse of a performance from actor Demián Bichir as Carlos. I wasn't familiar with him prior to this film, but this is a truly great, Oscar-worthy turn. Bichir plays a true leading-man role - a man's man role if there ever was one - but he does so without any hint of Hollywood glamour or vanity. His Carlos is weathered, beaten-down by life, and, usually, a man of few words. And yet, there is a quiet pride that you can see swelling up inside him, a strength of will, a gleam of intensity in the man's tired eyes. There's a bit of repressed anger. A wise observational power about his place in Los Angeles, in America, in life. Carlos is the kind of character that is fully-drawn, and yet, a man who any of us can see a bit of ourselves in. Anyone who's been pushed around, anyone who's felt held back, anyone who ever wanted to make a mark on the world, odds against us be damned - can understand the kind of man that Carlos is. And dammit all, when Carlos sets off on his unique sort of quest in the movie's second half, when he plays the part of blue-collar, man-on-a-mission action hero - well, just prepare for one of the most cathartic, applause-worthy, can't-stop-smiling-like-an-idiot moments you'll see in any movie this year.
Similarly good is young actor José Julián as teenaged Luis. Julian was actually in the audience of the screening I went to at the Arclight theater in Hollywood, and I couldn't help but smile when I saw him beaming after the movie, as crowd members shook his hand, snapped photos with him, and thanked him for his astounding portrayal of Luis. All of the attention was well-deserved, because Julian nearly matched Bichir in terms of making his character a layered, flawed creation who you nonetheless couldn't help but cheer for when push came to shove. I will say that some of the other young actors in the film seemed a little cheesy and/or flat at times, but Julian outshone most of them and really held his own.
Director Chris Weitz also does a fine job with the film, giving it a stark, gritty look and feel that pulls no punches in its depiction of inner-city LA. Weitz very effectively uses scenes of Carlos driving across LA to poignantly illustrate the disparity between the slums that Carlos and Luis live in and the posh neighborhoods of Beverly Hills only a few miles away - though the areas may as well exist in separate universes. Weitz also really captures and frames his actors effectively - he takes full advantage of Bichir's quietly expressive face to convey emotion simply by letting the audience read the lines next to Carlos' eyes or the furrow in his brow. Weitz has had a pretty unique career thus far - having worked on everything from American Pie to Twilight to About a Boy. But A Better Life is undoubtedly his crowning achievement to date. I also give a lot of credit to the movie's smartly-written and well-structured screenplay - a fine piece of work that really tells a great story in a well-paced manner that never feels overwritten or melodramatic.
On that note, I anticipate that some critics will deem this movie overly schmaltzy. Personally, I feel like I have a pretty good radar for when movies try to shove unearned melodrama down our throats. I don't think that's the case with this one. There are a couple of big, emotional, break-out-the-hanky story moments, but to me they work. To me, A Better Life is simply an example of small-scale storytelling with a huge heart and a big emotional core. The bleak moments are tempered by moments of humor and intensity, and it's only after we've been through a lot with these characters that the movie really cranks things up to another level. Really though, I found this film to be just a great father-son story - one of the best I've seen. This is a movie about being a Man, and about what it means to be a Man in the traditional sense. And there's something powerful about the concept that this blue-collar illegal immigrant, Carlos - he's a quiet man, a simple man, a man just trying to do what's right. And slowly but surely, we realize that while he seemed unremarkable at first, Carlos' sheer sense of determination to make a life for himself, his desire to care for his son, his refusal to just sit back and let life beat him up - well, that, ultimately, makes him one hell of a badass.
That being said, I don't think that A Better Life is really a political movie, but I could see how some will end up either praising or demonizing it because of some perceived feeling that this is a statement movie about illegal immigrants in the US. To me, this is a very specific story about one man who is stuck with the decisions he's made, and now, all he can do is try to figure out how he can do right by his situation, so that his son is given more of a chance than he was. As mentioned, I think the larger story here is about fathers and sons - it's right there in the title - A Better Life. I don't think the movie tries to manipulate us one way or the other on the fundamental "rightness" of illegal immigration as a whole. In fact, some of the other illegals portrayed in the film are wholly unsympathetic. But with Carlos, there is that doubt about whether he should ever have come to America in the first place, and there is doubt about many of the choices he made as a young man. But now, what he's left with is a simple choice: what can he do in his current situation? If he does have an opportunity to be something other than what he is - should he take it? How can he not if it means a better life for his son, even at some sacrifice for himself?
A Better Life is a system-shocker. With a memorable, heavyweight performance at its center, and a simple-yet-powerful story at its core, this is a movie that tugs at your heartstrings - it makes you cry, makes you cheer, and makes you think long and hard about the world we live in. This is perhaps the first honest-to-goodness great film of 2011.
My Grade: A