A Better Life – 2011
Directed by Chris Weitz
Starring Demian Bichir, José Julián, Carlos Linares, Eddie “Piolín” Sotelo, Joaquín Cosio, Nancy Lenehan
Written by Eric Eason
A man looking for work waits for cars to slow down, looking for workers. By mid day, it is just him and another person, who offers him a bite to eat. Within two days, his fortunes have changed. He borrows money from his similarly working class sister, buys a truck from his former employer, and then he sets about working with the same clients that his boss had before. He goes back to the place where he and the other man had waited, and picks him out of a crowd to hire. A few hours later, he is demonstrating how to climb a palm tree for purposes of pruning. The man keeps his eye on his employer until he gets all the way up the tree. Once there, the employer looks down and sees the other man running towards his truck, then hot wiring it, and driving away.
The man, losing his truck, has no recourse within the law. He is in the country illegally. His meager existence is in peril enough as it is. His life in the United States, and the life of his teenage son, lay in the balance. He has no choice but to succeed. If you can call breaking even a success.
“Why did you have me?” his disenfranchised son says to him, “Why do all these poor people have kids? What’s the point?”
“Don’t say that, Amigo,” he says, “Don’t say it.”
Of course the kid has a point. Tired of living in abject poverty, he sees the options in his life and he is none too thrilled. The fact that he is not yet required to do the oppressive amount of work that his father does affords him the opportunity to ask this question. He will not have this option for long.
His father, however, has no time for questions. His life dictates his choices made long ago. The buck stops with him. He has little capacity for stopping, considering, or enjoying his life. He spends his life living in Eden, yet still not touching any part of it in a meaningful way. He exists within it, yet outside of it, simultaneously.
As a father, one can feel sympathetic to the plight of one whose life is so consumed by work. His kid is losing touch with his father, if for no other reason, he hardly sees him. It is not until the cosmic tumblers have started to roll in a negative direction that he takes a moment to speak with his son. It is not too late. His son is a reasonable boy, even if he is living on the edge of the razor blade. No man should ever have to explain why he had his child.
As an citizen of the United States, I am empathetic to his cause. He is a hard worker, and is apparently not too terrible a burden on society. They do not show anything about food stamps or free medical care here. We do get to see what kind of legal help is available during deportation. If he is benefiting from my tax dollars, it ain’t much. It doesn’t mean I think more money should be headed his way, but it doesn’t mean I think any man has a legal right to any piece of land over another in the eyes of God.
Still, the acting is good, by the father Carlos (Bichir) and son Luis (Julián) Galindo. Both are solid, professional actors, who evoke genuine emotion from what could have been a sappy script. If there is an agenda to the proceedings, it is hidden well. Bichir is sympathetic without being pathetic. His will is indomitable, but his soul is gentle. It is nice to see that his nomination for this performance, even if he doesn’t stand a chance. At least his chances are in line with the movie’s theme.
“That is why I had you,” Carlos tells his son, after he has passed the point of no return, “For me. For me. For a reason to live.”
The tale is solid, for the questions asked, and the answers given. Humans are just what they are. They live. They fall in love. They breed. Sometimes they work. Sometimes they don’t. They die. There is a cycle to it, and it is well demonstrated here. This is not a preachy film, even if it is about a hot button topic. Weitz toes the line and never once crosses it. In the end, you still have a very human story, done well.
(***1/2 out of *****)