Reviewed by Ian Forbes, Sobering Conclusion
The more erudite and well-bred film critics may liken director Chris Weitz’ A Better Life to Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief. And seeing as if you replace “bicycle” with “truck”, the basic premise of the story is the same, this comparison seems quite apropos (though few would call me erudite or well-bred).
In A Better Life, Carlos (Demián Bichir) is an illegal immigrant working as a day laborer who scrounges enough money together to purchases his friend/boss’ truck in order to help him head up his own landscaping business; continuing to utilize the common method of hiring other illegal immigrants – to keep costs low and also help out others in the same situation. Carlos relies on this business model to not only keep a roof over his own head, but that of his ungrateful son, Luis (José Julián), who’s ashamed of dad’s status in life. When the truck is stolen, father and son must undertake a quest to find it. And of course, the journey brings them closer together.
Holding the production together is a strong showing from Birchir. His presence commands each scene and fully conveys the range of emotions the character must be feeling in his situation. Julián does okay as his son, nicely portraying the spoiled side of things but not being fully convincing when it comes to bringing the character full circle.
And essentially, that’s the problem with the overall production. Weitz, and the writers, want to tell a powerful story about illegal immigration AND a father/son tale but fall a little short in making it feel like the two stories go together in this case. Part of the problem is in splitting the focus as we learn about each of the main characters; are we looking at things from Dad’s point of view or his son’s? Worse still, Carlos’ scenes all seem germane to the plot while Luis’ dealings with a local street gang his girlfriend’s older brother runs feel like some cliché 90’s film thrown haphazardly into the middle of things.
Despite Bichir’s excellent performance, the formulaic and predictable story of A Better Life simply falls flat. It’s a story anyone living near the U.S./Mexico border is familiar with and makes much more sense for audiences to wait for its appearance on TV rather than take the effort and spend the cash to find in theaters.
A Better Life hits theaters on June 24, 2011 and is rated PG-13 for some violence, language and brief drug use.