A Better Life

A Better Life


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

US migration stories are one of the staples of American indie film, although they have been gradually migrating themselves, away from straight forward "how do we get in" narratives to more complex affairs, including The Visitor and Amreeka, concerning what happens to those who reach the other side - and their families.

Here, the family treated to A Better Life - a title that drips with irony - are father and son Carlos (Damián Bichir, who will be most familiar to audiences from his turn as Castro in Soderbergh's Che movies) and Luis (newcomer José Julián). Luis was born soon after his father and, now absent, mother came to the US, so has every right to stay in the country, but Carlos is not so lucky. He is doing the best he can, working in the black economy to create a "better life" for his son at the same time as "trying to stay invisible" to the authorities and avoid deportation. The ability to really make some cash hinges on buying his boss's van and gardening equipment, an objective that is at once simple yet incredibly difficult to achieve. Yet, the worst of the dad and son's troubles are still to come.

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Chris Weitz knows a thing or two about creating a convincing 'father and son' dynamic, having directed both About A Boy and (although uncredited) American Pie, and Eric Eason's screenplay has an enviable subtlety. Early on, there is a fear that a broad brushtroke story may be created, as Luis begins to flirt with the idea of joining a local gang, but Eason's story turns out to be an altogether more richly woven affair than that, with issues of love, loyalty and pulling together in times of trouble coming to the fore.

And despite the fact that A Better Life deals with issues more normally associated with the art house, such as cultural identity - Luis, for example, refuses to speak Spanish although it's clear he understands it perfectly - and the human impact of migration laws, it holds them within an accessible and entertaining mainstream framework. We care deeply about Carlos and his melancholic stoicism - thanks in no small part to a staggeringly good turn from Bichir, who generates sympathy without slipping into over-earnestness - and are desperate to see him get the life he is working so hard for. We are also rooting for Luis, willing him to cling tighter to his emotional rock of a father rather than seeking more dangerous kinship elsewhere. And while the ending may overstep the mark a little in search of resolution that will work for a mainstream audience, the emotional notes ring true.

Weitz creates a convincing landscape for his characters and cleverly shows how Carlos, in particular, is continually looking in at the 'better life' enjoyed by others, so close he can reach out and touch it yet at the same time an entire world away. Touching but never mawkish and with a steely point to make, Weitz and Eason have created a snapshot of a life that many live but few others are aware of.

Reviewed on: 07 Jul 2011
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A Mexican illegal immigrant father and his son strive to improve their lot.
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Director: Chris Weitz

Writer: Eric Eason, Roger L. Simon

Starring: Damián Bichir, Jose Julian, Chelsea Rendon

Year: 2011

Runtime: 97 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: United States of America


EIFF 2011

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