Review: ‘A Better Life’ offers a direct and devastating emotional experience

I met Chris Weitz briefly over a decade ago when, after the “Detroit Rock City” premiere, he and his brother Paul gave Harry Knowles and I a ride to our hotel through Westwood.  At that point, they were the “American Pie” guys and little else, and the years since have seen both of the Weitz brothers try many different things without really ever creating a singular identity for themselves as filmmakers.

For Chris, the high watermark so far has been “About A Boy,” the 2002 film he made starring Hugh Grant and a young Nicolas Hoult.  I love that film.  I love the performances, and I especially love the way it seems to take its time and leave a lot of room for raw humanity, in no hurry to get to the clever concept or the big twist.  It’s a simple film, direct and real.  Since then, “The Golden Compass” and “Twilight: New Moon” both felt like detours that did nothing for Weitz as a filmmaker, but I understand the freedom that a hit like “New Moon” buys for you as a director, and it looks to me like Weitz cashed that freedom in on his new film, and it may be the best choice he’s ever made.

There’s no way to deny that the script, with story by Roger L. Simon and screenplay by Eric Eason, owes a nod to the structure of the classic Vittorio De Sica film “Bicycle Thieves,” and I’m sure Weitz would acknowledge it.  But if you think this is just a remake of that movie, or just a modern update of it, you’d be wrong.  The basic structure allows Weitz to use the movie as part of a larger conversation about the modern immigrant experience, and the divided world that is Los Angeles.

I’ve been in LA since 1990, and I’m married to an immigrant from South America who spent many years working in immigration law, so perhaps I’m the exact target audience for this film, but I’d like to think that even someone with no experience with the world of the movie would be affected by this emotionally direct and deeply human movie.  It tells the story of Carlos Galindo (Demian Bichir) and his son Luis (Jose Julian) and the various strains on their relationship.  They live in East LA, and every day, Carlos gets up and drives into Beverly Hills, where he works as a gardener, invisible by choice.  He’s still illegal after twenty years in the United States, and every attempt he’s made to get into the system has ended in frustration.  He worries every day about la migra, constantly afraid that something will separate him from his son, bringing his decades of struggle to a frustrating end.  All he wants to do is make enough money to try and give Luis the things he never had, and in his constant struggle, he’s starting to lose his actual connection to his son.  Luis is starting to flirt with the idea of joining a gang, and he’s slowly but surely abandoning school.  He’s a decent kid, but the pressures that he’s feeling are completely identifiable.  He looks at his father as a bit of an embarrassment, and he’s doing everything he can to not be his dad.

When Carlos’s boss, Blasco (Joaquin Cosio), announces his intention to quit his business and move back to Mexico, he gives Carlos the chance to buy his truck and his client list for $12,000.  It might as well be a billion dollars to Carlos, though, and aside from the financial barrier, Carlos is also afraid to own a truck.  He worries about being pulled over by the cops.  He worries about showing up on the radar, something he’s tried to prevent for as long as he can remember.  But the more Blasco talks to him about the money he could make and what he could do with it, the more Carlos sees this as an opportunity to finally give Luis all the things he’s wanted to give him, and he ends up borrowing the money from his sister, who married into a gringo family years ago.  He buys the truck, and for a brief moment, he feels like the future is finally looking bright.

And then the truck is stolen.

The rest of the film deals with the way that Luis and Carlos come together as they search for the truck, and it builds to a conclusion that left me emotionally ruined, all hinged on a question that Luis asks his father at one point:  “Why did you have me?”  Luis asks not just for himself, but for all children born into poor families or into difficult circumstances, and it’s a breathtaking question for a child to ask a parent.  The film is less concerned with the story of the truck than with a sort of x-ray of the world where Carlos and Luis live.  I love the way Weitz uses driving in the film to show the transition between worlds, and I think the cinematography by Javier Aguirresarobe is gorgeous.  He captures the Los Angeles I recognize, both the good and the bad of it, and the score by Alexandre Desplat offers tremendous support to the imagery, authentic and emotionally resonant.

The performances in the film are outstanding across the board, but it all comes down to the work that Bichir and Julian do, and they couldn’t be any better together.  Bichir’s work isn’t what is typically thought of as “leading man” material, and that’s because he totally abandons the idea of ego here.  He shows you exactly how beaten down by life Carlos is, and he shows you the spark that life hasn’t managed to snuff completely in those moments where it shines through.  Julian never strikes me as a movie kid, and the decisions he faces are never cranked up to the point of melodrama.  What moved me deeply were the moments where you can see these two men struggling to find an emotional common ground, and it struck me as a very honest picture about how hard that can be for fathers and sons at a certain age, no matter what their circumstance.

“A Better Life” is a very small, very intimate story, and yet, it’s one of the biggest emotional experiences I’ve had in a movie theater this year.  I recommend it highly, and I’ll point out that it’s the first time since we’ve gone to letter grades that I am giving anything here an “A.”  Couldn’t happen to a more deserving movie, and I hope this is a look at what we can expect from Weitz moving forward.  We need more of these wise, human stories, and it seems like when he works in this mode, he is at his very best.

“A Better Life” opens today.