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With American opinions becoming more polarized on most any issue that can be twisted for political gain, resentment against illegal immigrants -- mainly Latinos -- is at an all-time high. Average viewers will steer away from documentaries that hold up a mirror to unpleasant truths, and old-school Stanley Kramer liberal filmmaking won't hack it any more. As much as we agree with the principles behind a show like Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?, the movie remains a lecture for an audience presumed to be as mentally malleable as little children. No, reaching the public with a liberal message these days raises a different set of problems. People know what's right and fair but often can't be budged from their personal sphere of comfort. If you want them to care, you have to touch them personally. The excellent film A Better Life succeeds very well at a job that, to our shame, needs to be done -- to teach an audience to recognize people from a different background as human beings.
A Better Life is too intelligent to argue immigration policy or support a political cause. We instead see the plain living reality of what some call illegal immigrants and others call undocumented workers. Mexican gardener Carlos Galindo (Demián Bichir, who played Fidel Castro in Che) rises early in his East L.A. rented house/ He travels with his boss to tend lawns and do quality landscaping twenty miles across town in the Hollywood Hills and Malibu. For a low wage and no benefits Carlos does the dangerous job of scaling high palm trees with no safety line. Carlos' boss wants to sell his truck and equipment; Carlos is eager to buy but needs to borrow $3,000 from his sister Anita (Dolores Heredia). The timing is important, as Carlos' son Luis (José Julián) has become old enough to be offered membership in the gangs. A product of his environment, Luis barely sees his hardworking father and has little appreciation of hard work and adult responsibility. Carlos can't communicate all of his feelings, but he can tell that he's losing Luis to the streets.
Anita comes through with the loan, on the principle that "things have to change." Carlos proudly buys his son a Fútbol jersey and happily hires Salvadoran day worker Santiago (Carlos Linares) to help out. But the first time Carlos climbs a high palm, Santiago bolts and steals his truck. Carlos has lost everything: his only way of making a living. Now he'll never be able to pay back Anita. Carlos and Luis attempt a nearly hopeless search for their all-important truck.
Beautifully acted and directed without a hint of self-important posturing, A Better Life is one of this year's best-reviewed films. Demián Bichir's performance certainly warrants awards attention. The film's high level of credibility is partly attributable to special consultant Gregory Boyle, the well-known East L.A. community organizer and founder of Homeboy Industries, which helps ex-gang members find jobs and straighten out. The gang-age kids speak with the correct local jargon. Boyle also helped tweak the screenplay's slant on the nature of gang life. Luis's friends don't aspire to gang membership but fall into it from a diminished sense of self-worth, a general hopelessness. This part of the movie is a parade of menacing, often grotesque gang tattoos, the kind of body vandalism that says, "Life means nothing to me." That is the trap Carlos so strongly wants Luis to avoid.
Although nobody seems to want to say it, the general premise of A Better Life aligns with Vittorio de Sica's Italian neorealist classic The Bicycle Thief. In that show a desperate, unemployed family man loses his chance at a living wage when his all-important bicycle is stolen. He scours the city with his little boy in tow. Seeing his son's total love and dependence on him, the worker finally breaks down and tries to steal somebody else's bike.
A Better Life is less sentimental, but Carlos's overall situation is much worse. The Italian welfare case was a full citizen among his own people. As an undocumented worker Carlos pays the same for everything as everyone else but lives in constant jeopardy. Whatever he might build up he can lose in a single traffic stop. He has no drivers' license and no insurance. He cannot register the truck he's bought, which means that he's already committed an offense that could get Immigration on his case. When his truck is stolen, he has no recourse except to look for it on his own.
Carlos and Luis's daylong odyssey takes them on a short bus ride away from their home turf. The very gang-conscious Luis is nervous when they enter a neighborhood dominated by Central American undocumenteds hostile to Mexican-Americans: the new arrivals from the South are packed by the dozen into tiny apartments. Waiting for a restaurant to open, they take a rest at a local gala for Mexican-heritage Charro culture, an activity for established Mexican-Americans that Carlos and Luis have no experience with. Their horizons are very narrow. Carlos' backbreaking work consumes his whole life. Luis knows little more than the pervasive gang culture and the hostile conditions in his prison-like high school. The dream of Carlos is to break out of this trap of insecurity. His sister Anita married into a better situation. She believes in Carlos' goodness and wants to help.
Rather than make a special plea, A Better Life sticks with its personal story. Carlos has no knowledge of politics or the immigrants' rights movement. He's too caught up trying to survive. The film also has no axe to grind against the police or the immigration cops. In its most mature move, Eric Eason's screenplay doesn't even condemn the thief Santiago as a villain. He's another man desperate to send money back home, who sees no way of earning enough to make a difference. People do what they have to do to survive.
The movie strikes some strong sentimental notes at the end while retaining its low-key credibility. Luis comes to realize the importance of family and becomes a stand-up guy helping his father with street-level rough stuff that Carlos knows nothing about (not to mention some slick cell-phone tricks). Carlos hears a question from Luis that as a Catholic he has never fully had to consider: "Father, why did you have me?" A Better Life gives a truthful picture of a subject almost always buried in rhetoric. The only pointed remark in the whole movie occurs at the very end, when Carlos re-crosses the international boundary and says, "Let's go home." Like it or not, Los Angeles is his home. The city couldn't function without workers like Carlos.
Summit Entertainment's DVD of A Better Life is an extremely good NTSC encoding -- screened on my BD player, it looked almost as good as a Blu-ray. Director Chris Weitz (About a Boy) and actor Demián Bichir share an audio commentary that convinces us of their commitment to the material, without a hint of self-congratulation. 1
The two video extras are a music video (Ozomatli:Jardinero) and a trio of deleted scenes with optional Chris Weitz comments. It's clear that the producers were sufficiently convinced of the integrity of A Better Life to take the high road: one unused clip shows Carlos being punched out by another illegal, and a second sees Luis learning a pointed lesson about his own racial attitudes toward blacks.
The film is offered on Blu-ray as well.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
A Better Life rates:
1. Good marks to Weitz, Bechir and company for that. On the last show I reviewed about a social concern the filmmakers came off as entirely too satisfied with their own 'special sensitivity'. I still relate that to the legacy of Stanley Kramer, who for his all-too commercially inclined message pictures claimed a free pass plus VIP status for bravery and social commitment. Not a hint of that nonsense here.
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T'was Ever Thus.