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RUNNING TIME: 98 Minutes
- Audio Commentary with Director Chris Weitz
- “Jardinero” Music Video by Ozomatli
Illegal immigrant and hardworking single dad Carlos Galindo embarks on a physical and spiritual journey in order to reconnect with his teenage son and keep him from getting pulled into the local gang life.
Director: Chris Weitz
Screenwriter: Eric Eason
Cast: Demián Bechir, José Julián
As sure as the sky is blue or Gary Busey is batshit, illegal immigration has always been a hot button topic. Seemingly as reliable is Hollywood’s willingness to mine this issue to re-affirm relevance while grabbing whatever cash it can. Some of the more recent forays into this territory, such as Crash, Maria Full of Grace, The Visitor, even Machete, have split critics (and audiences) into two camps. Commentary and/or criticism of these films has been leveled at either the softening of the social politics surrounding the issue or exploiting these opportunities as a venue for “liberal propaganda.” The reason you may not know too much about A Better Life is that it falls right in the middle.
Carlos Galindo (Demián Bechir) is an illegal living in East L.A. with his son Luis. Neither are living in squalor, but by no means are things going well. Carlos makes ends meet working long hours as part of a two-man gardening crew, leaving Luis (José Julián)unsupervised and tempted by a heavily-inked gang leader. Things begin to crumble further after Carlos’ compatriot Blasco(Joaquín Cosio) mentions that he has plans to move back to Mexico, and will be selling his truck and gardening supplies. Blasco would ideally have Carlos take over the business and achieve “the American Dream” just like him. Carlos’ caveat is that the five-figure price point is impossibly out of his reach. All of this is compounded by Luis’ suspension from high school for some PG-13 rated thuggery.
This may all sound a bit bleak, but because the director of A Better Life isn’t Iñárritu (of Amores Perros), rather Chris Weitz (of American Pie), the film doesn’t ask us to experience the day-to-day slog of these character’s lives. Instead it provides what appears to be a pretty clear answer to the lead character’s problem. His sister shows up at his door after hearing about his plight, bearing an envelope stuffed full of enough cash to pay for the truck and tools. Initially reluctant, Carlos is no idiota, and within days has become the proud new owner of a turquoise pick-up of no discernible make or model. The auto industry missed a blatant opportunity for product placement here; “Re-introducing the 1999 Ford F-150, designed for all of your illegal immigrant/scrapping needs!”
Carlos drives to an area familiar to him from his days of taking manual labor jobs. He picks up a gentleman by the name of Santiago and heads to his first job as the master of his own destiny. Indisposed while aloft and explaining how to trim a palm tree, Carlos is robbed of everything by Santiago.
It’s this moment, well executed with great work from Bechir, that first led to my engaging with the film. Shades of the iconic theft scene in The Bicycle Thief are apparent and it’s a scene that seemingly hints that Weitz might have something interesting in store. Carlos ultimately meets up with Luis and they go in search of Santiago and the truck together. This is a pleasant burst of story in a film that feels aimless, if not somewhat authentic. Unfortunately, this thread plays itself out with roughly fifteen minutes left in the film. These last minutes are where the film loses alot of goodwill from me.
It is no fault of the actors, particularly Demián’s, as his deeply felt performance is, if not quite Academy Award nod-worthy, exemplary. I am not convinced that blame belongs entirely with Weitz either, as he handles the film’s dramatic beats well enough to (temporarily) erase memories of The Golden Compass or New Moon. Even the screenplay by Eric Eason brings a majority of the aforementioned authenticity. But Eason and Weitz end the film with a denouement that feels both forced and preachy. I won’t give too much away, but I will warn you that, SPOILER ALERT: You’re political beliefs may be tested.
It’s a questionable choice, largely because a majority of the film is about a father coming to understand his son and vice versa as well as how Carlos intends to give his son a shot at “the American Dream.” These few perceivably tacked on scenes vaguely outline the U.S.’s immigration system and then focus on it’s(perceived) ills. It brings no insightful commentary or interesting questions, serving to just cheapen a moderately successful film. As it stands A Better World has been condemned it to the pile of films that tried to broach a sensitive topic and stumbled.
A far from exemplary set of special features. Chris Weitz and Demián Bechir discuss making the film in pretty rudimentary terms, with very little discussion. Also, Ozomatli is shit.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars