Bottom Line: Propelled by one great performance; I was hoping for a “better” movie.
Directed by: Chris Weitz
Starring: Demian Bichir, Eddie “Piolin” Sotelo, Jose Julian
Barely sturdy drama about a Hispanic gardener, Carlos Galindo (Demián Bichir), and his son Luis (José Julián). The two have immigrated illegally to California, and the new life has become a struggle for Carlos. Carlos realizes that his son is enduring a struggle of his own: he is becoming involved with gangs. In attempt to give his son a better life than he himself had had as a teenager, Carlos makes an effort to keep Luis away from gang activity.
The performance given by Demián Bichir is the absolute definitive highlight of A BETTER LIFE. I wouldn’t say he quite deserved to win the Oscar for Best Actor (there were better performances this past year by George Clooney and Jean Dujardin), but he most certainly deserved the nomination that he did get. Bichir may be the only actual cast member who manages to deliver a convincing and authentic role in this entire film, especially when compared to the performance of José Julián as his character’s son. It is quite easy to find Galindo as a likeable character and even an agreeable one; this factor seems oddlyenhanced (rather than the opposite) by the fact that he is an illegal immigrant. Had the story been the same, except not about illegal immigrants, and Bichir replaced by another actor, the film would have been a mess.
The fact that A BETTER LIFE is purely an American-made movie came off by total surprise with me as I was viewing it. I know it’s likely that I have seen a ninety-minute American movie that was taken up by at least ten total minutes of speaking in a foreign language. Up until now, I couldn’t recall ever having seen one without subtitles. There are quite a few scenes in which characters plow through entire conversations in the Spanish language, but there were no subtitles to provide translation. That said, I knew enough basic Spanish to decode a few words in each sentence of these conversations, but I had to wonder how much of the story I missed.
A BETTER LIFE isn’t a great film, nor is it a bad film. It has its moments of intrigue, but it seems noticeably flawed and it doesn’t even begin to grow poignant until at least an hour through. Simple stories often work very well for dramas. Examples of this include THE GREEN MILE, ORDINARY PEOPLE, and (to go much further back) 12 ANGRY MEN. Had this been worked on a bit more, the simplistic plot would have provided for a phenomenal movie.