‘A Better Life’ follows the story of Carlos Galindo (Demián Bichir), a Mexican illegal immigrant in the US who works as a gardener at rich people’s mansions. Carlos is also a single father, raising his teenage son Luis (José Julián). When Carlos sees the chance to better his and his son’s life with the purchase of a new truck, he scraps every dollar and buys it. When the truck is stolen, desperate Carlos teams up with his son to try to return it.
Background and lead acting
The film features a Hispanic cast; was co-financed and released by Summit Entertainment; and was directed by Chris Weitz, who, incidentally, also directed ‘American Pie’ (1999) and ‘About a Boy’ (2002), as well as the more recent ‘The Twilight Saga: New Moon’ (2009). However, the unknown cast, lack of viable promotion and the contrived trailer may give an impression that the film belongs to some foreign film festival at best, instantly to be discarded upon seeing. This impression is very false. ‘A Better Life’ is a film full of meaning, portraying an ordinary life with extraordinary skill. Undoubtedly drawing inspiration from a classic ‘The Bicycle Thieves’ (1948), the issues which concern ‘A Better Life’ are as old as time. Ranging from the American Dream themes to the issues of morality, guilt, remorse and forgiveness in the modern world, ‘A Better Life’ provides for an all-encompassing glance into the life of the society’s outsiders, while, at the same time, remaining narratively-simple and clear as to its message.
Despite its simple premise, the film draws the viewer into the world of the main character almost from the first scenes, making the audience sympathize with Carlos, and wish him to succeed in his endeavours at whatever cost. Bichir as Carlos is mesmerising to watch because he is so believable in his role of a struggling, hardworking father, who just wants something better for his only son. Bichir was nominated for an Academy Award in the category of the Best Leading Actor, and he really brings out all of the humane qualities of his character, making him vulnerable and strong at the same time. Carlos (his character) is sometimes physically and emotionally wrecked in the movie, but at no time point is he totally defeated. It is remarkable what a brilliant acting by the lead can achieve. With no tricks or pointless special effects, and with some amazing acting and a meaningful storyline, ‘A Better Life’ seems like a breath of fresh air.
Comparison with other movies
In recent years, we have seen a number of good films portraying Mexican illegal migration quite realistically. One of these is ‘Sin Nombre’ (2009), directed by Cary Fukunaga (‘Jane Eyre’ (2011)) – a beautifully-shot thriller, which won numerous awards. Although ‘A Better Life’ may not quite achieve the standard of ‘Sin Nombre’, the film tries hard to give this realistic feel, and manages to convey just the right emotions most of the time. Carlos Galindo, being an illegal immigrant in the movie, does not give the impression of being just a number in the US Border Agency statistics or someone who wants to break the law to become rich. Instead, he gives the impression of a very honest and good person who just strives for a better life, and does his best given the circumstances. Incidentally, ‘A Better Life’ also provides a nice introduction to the culture and lifestyle of Mexico, for example by showing rodeo shows, and featuring Mexican folk music.
Although the story-lines of ‘A Better Life’ and artsy ‘Biutiful’ (2010) are completely different, these two films can be compared. In ‘A Better Life’, as in ‘Biutiful’, Demián Bichir and Javier Bardem give amazing performances, portraying fathers who struggle to make ends meet in a brutal world. However, while Alejandro Iñárritu’s ‘Biutiful’ struggles to deliver anything more than a muddy narrative and an unclear premise, ‘A Better Life’ sends a very strong message and provides a powerful, straightforward story which is entertaining to watch. In that way, it almost reminds of another movie, ‘The Pursuit of Happiness’ (2006), which follows a similar plot. However, although ‘The Pursuit of Happiness’ is as inspirational as ‘A Better Life’, it still lacks the sincerity and realism of the latter.
The main weakness of this film is that it is too predictable and may appear quite naive to some. At other times, it is also rather slow. However, as the film’s goal is to move the audience emotionally, these weaknesses actually contribute to bringing out some of the film’s best qualities, e.g. its ability to make the audience think hard about some of the philosophical life questions, and make the audience believe in the infinite capabilities of the human will and spirit. José Julián, who plays Carlos’s son, could have been more expressive in his performance too, but for a start-up actor, this is hardly a criticism. The other puzzling thing in this movie is its ending, which feels like a spare part compared to the rest of the movie, producing confusion and dissatisfaction.
The upshot is that ‘A Better Life’ is a simple film, which tells a simple story. However, because it conveys some of the most important messages in cinema and is charged with so much emotion (gracias a Demián Bichir), it deserves to be seen. 6/10