Chasing the American dream
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, July 15, 2011
Early Oscar list-makers, please write down this name: Demian Bichir.
Bichir, a movie star in Mexico whose most familiar role to date was as Fidel Castro in Steven Soderbergh’s “Che,” delivers one of the most powerful performances of the year in “A Better Life,” Chris Weitz’s engrossing, unassuming drama about an undocumented Mexican worker in contemporary Los Angeles. With such classics as “El Norte” and, more recently, “Sin Nombre” and “Under the Same Moon” having addressed the subject matter already and so well, viewers might be forgiven for asking just how many immigration movies we need. As “A Better Life” proves, as many as there are stories to tell.
In this case, the story concerns Carlos Galindo (Bichir), who does lawn-care work while taking care of his 14-year-old son, Luis (Jose Julian), an angry, spoiled kid who, surrounded by “Hollywood Cribs” on TV and gangs on the street, is on the verge of succumbing to the lures of thug life. When Carlos takes an opportunity to buy his boss’s truck, he’s finally in a position to create a business for himself. While he’s atop a swaying palm tree one day, that dream comes crashing down, turning the movie into a 21st-century American version of the wrenching Italian neorealist drama, "Bicycle Thieves.”
Weitz, whose resume includes the dizzyingly diverse slate of “American Pie,” “About a Boy” and a “Twilight” movie, hews to a disarmingly simple storytelling style in “A Better Life,” which chronicles Carlos and Luis’s journey through the most elite and impoverished precincts of L.A. as they embark on a classic cinematic quest. But what Weitz and screenwriter Eric Eason capture so vividly is the sense of simultaneous dislocation and complete integration experienced by young people of foreign descent who have grown up drenched in American culture. With his hip-hop Spanglish cadences, Luis embodies the contradictions of that generation with poignant, pointed subtlety, whether with the withering contempt he gives his working-class dad in a posh nightclub or quizzically listening to the announcer whose Spanish he can’t understand at a local Fiesta del Charro.
If “A Better Life” falls into too-pat schematic order at times, its emotional pull is undeniable, thanks in large part to Bichir’s quietly potent performance of a good man who’s incapable of doing the wrong thing until he does. Without a scintilla of showboating or begging for the audience’s sympathy, Bichir never allows Carlos to be a victim, instead giving him the dignity of his choices: good and bad, smart and dumb, legal and illegal.
“A Better Life” might not change any minds about immigration policy, but it illuminates the conversation with context, compassion and understanding. And by the time Carlos utters the film’s heart-stopper of a final line, audiences may feel ambivalent about where he’s going, but they’ll have a newly awakened sense of where he’s coming from.
Contains some violence, profanity and brief drug use.