A Better Life

Demian Bichir wonders if there is a better life anywhere.

Demian Bichir wonders if there is a better life anywhere.

(2011) Drama (Summit) Demian Bichir, Eddie “Piotin” Sotelo, Joaquin Cosio, Jose Julian, Nancy Lenehan, Gabriel Chavarria, Bobby Soto, Chelsea Rendon, Trampas Thompson, Tim Griffin, Valorie Hubbard, Dolores Heredia, Isabella Rae Thomas, Carlos Linares, Robert Peters, Richard Cabral, Bella Balajadia, Giselle Nieto, Rolando Molina, Taide Acosta. Directed by Chris Weitz

When we discuss the question of illegal immigration, often we tend to speak in generalities, both sides often ignoring the fact that we’re not talking about concepts or generalities but of flesh and blood. Whatever side we choose to hang our hat on, the truth is that every one of these illegal aliens are human beings with hopes, dreams, frustrations and feelings.

Carlos Galindo (Bichir) has all of these things. He has worked hard, raising his son Luis (Julian) essentially by himself after his wife walked out on him to marry a U.S. citizen and get her own slice of American pie. He works with Blasco Martinez (Cosio) who owns a landscaping business that has been successful enough that Blasco is ready to retire back to Mexico to a ranch there he has purchased. He proposes to give Carlos the business, or rather sell it to him including the pickup truck he drives them in to the various clients but Carlos is short three thousand dollars. He borrows the amount from his sister Anita (Heredia) and it looks like things are falling into place for Carlos.

Instead, things fall apart when the precious truck is stolen. Being illegal, Carlos has no drivers license and can’t get a new one, even if he could afford it. He has to get that truck back and with Luis in tow, makes a desperate jaunt into the various nooks and crannies of Hispanic L.A. to not only find the truck but to save Luis, who is edging closer and closer to joining a gang.

Weitz, who has movies as disparate as About a Boy and The Twilight Series: New Moon under his belt, continues to direct movies that are as different from one another as can be; I would challenge you to find a director with a filmography as varied as his. This is yet another notch on his belt that is different in flavor from all the others.

Weitz has an eye and ear for the immigrant experience, from the gang culture to the hard workers in kitchens and as domestics, in clubs and bars to the businesses and homes. One of his smartest moves was in casting Bichir, a veteran of Mexican telenovelas in the lead role. Bichir, who would go on to garner acclaim in the FX series The Bridge gives a career-making performance here, full of dignity and strength but with an edge of fear as well; fear not just that he will be caught and deported but that he will lose his son to the seductive siren call of thug life. Julian does solid work as does the rest of the mainly unknown supporting cast but it is Bichir who shines.

While the life of the illegal is presented in a sober and unflinching light, it is hard not to preach a little bit about the way these people are marginalized and taken for granted. The L.A. economic engine, however, would sputter and come to a screeching halt without the labor that they provide and, in a larger sense, that of nearly the entire Southwest; a sizable portion of the fresh vegetables and fruit that you eat were harvested by illegal hands.

While occasionally heavy handed, the movie remains compelling from beginning to end, largely because Bichir gives that human face depth and color. The success of the movie is that it presents Carlos as a flawed man but essentially a good one who wants nothing more than to give his child a better life than the one he has and isn’t that what most parents want for their own children?

WHY RENT THIS: Humanizes illegal aliens. Scintillating performance by Bichir.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Occasionally preachy.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief violence, a smattering of foul language and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bichir received a Best Actor nomination at the 2012 Oscars.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a music video from the Grammy-winning band Ozomatli.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.8M on a $10M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray Rental), Amazon (rent/buy), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (purchase only), Target Ticket (unavailable)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bicycle Thieves
FINAL RATING: 6,5/10
NEXT: Woman in Gold

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