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A Better Life: Down and Out in East L.A.

by Ethan Alter June 24, 2011 6:00 am
<i>A Better Life</i>: Down and Out in East L.A.

"Noble" is the best word to describe Chris Weitz's new drama A Better Life. It was noble of Weitz to follow up a paycheck gig helming the second chapter in The Twilight Saga by making a low-budget film about a hot-button, socially relevant issue like illegal immigration. Mexican actor Demian Bichir's performance as the film's central character Carlos, a day laborer trying to earn a living for himself and his teenage son on the mean streets of Los Angeles, is also suffused with nobility and stiff-upper-lip suffering. And it's noble of the film's distributor, Summit Entertainment, to release a film like this at the height of the summer movie season, when multiplexes are generally crammed with far less weighty fare that revolve around giant transforming robots or zoo animals that for some reason feel compelled to talk to Kevin James.

Unfortunately, nobility only gets you so far in this business. A film has also got to bring the dramatic goods to complement its good intentions and that's where A Better Life falls short. In both its general plot and structure, the film plays like a contemporary remake of the classic 1948 Italian neo-realist film, Bicycle Thieves, which told the heart-breaking story of a father and son that scour the streets of post-war Rome on a desperate search to find a stolen bicycle that's essential to their continued livelihood. In A Better Life, Carlos and his kid Luis (Jose Julian) criss-cross L.A. looking for a stolen truck that may be their ticket to, as the title implies, a better life.

Their search occupies the bulk of the movie's slender 98-minute runtime, but first Weitz and screenwriter Eric Eason devote roughly thirty minutes to establishing the hardscrabble life they lead. Since making the treacherous border crossing about ten years ago with his wife and then-young son, Carlos has toiled in a variety of odd jobs before finding steady work with another immigrant who runs his own landscaping business out of a pick-up truck. Meanwhile, his disillusioned wife decided to go her own way, leaving Carlos to add full-time father to his list of duties. Because he slaves away all day on other people's lawns, he rarely has the energy to interact with his son when he arrives home late at night. As a result, Luis grew up largely on his own and now that he's in high school, the lack of strong parental guidance could result in him making some bad life decisions, like joining the gang of aspiring criminals his best friend and girlfriend pal around with. Carlos wants to help, but taking a day off to play a game of catch or talk about girls with the directionless teen isn't exactly a luxury they can afford.

An opportunity to change both their lives presents itself when his boss informs him that he's retiring from the landscaping game and offers to sell him the business, complete with the truck, tools and list of clients. Borrowing the not-inconsiderable funds from his sister, Carlos meets Luis after school one day the proud owner of his own company. Right away there are concerns, though; to begin with, he can't commit even the smallest traffic violation as any contact with the police will reveal that he doesn't have a license, registration or, most importantly, a green card. Carlos also makes a poor managerial decision with his choice of assistant, an older immigrant who winds up stealing the truck while his boss is distracted. Luis is even angrier about the carjacking than his old man and insists that he accompany Carlos on his odyssey across the sprawling city. Along the way, the two air their grievances and truly bond for the first time in years.

Much like Bicycle Thieves, the premise of A Better Life naturally lends itself to some gripping and deeply emotional moments. The actual robbery, for example, is devastating even though you know its coming. Likewise, the scene where Carlos tracks the thief down to his place of employment is quite tense as you await their possible confrontation with equal parts nervousness over what he might do and hope that he'll win some small sliver of justice. Bichir's stoic performance wins the audience over to Carlos' side early on -- he effectively adopts the visage of a man whose life has been a constant struggle, almost to the point where he's effectively given up on the hope of a brighter future. In some ways, his young co-star has the harder role and he's not entirely up to the challenge. Luis is intended to be a decent kid at heart, but one going through that teenage rebellion stage most of us experience when we hit 14, which forces him to act out in frustrating and, at times, irritating ways. Julian tries to capture the character's jumbled emotional state, but his default setting is too often petulant whining.

To be fair, he's not helped by Eason's on-the-nose script and Weitz's uneven direction. One of the reasons Bicycle Thieves endures is because it immerses the viewer so completely in a shattered city. The director, Vittorio De Sica, grew up in poverty in Italy and his own experiences -- coupled with his decision to shoot the film in a documentary-like fashion, with non-actors and no sets -- lends the film an intense realism that makes the dramatic stakes that much higher. In contrast, Weitz comes from a substantially different background from his characters (although he can correctly claim to have Mexican heritage--his grandmother is famed Latina actress Lupita Tovar) and thus naturally brings a more distant, observational style to the proceedings. And while he does deserve credit for shooting extensively on location in L.A. neighborhoods that are too-rarely shown onscreen (at least in more prominently released studio fare), his compositions are a little too clean and precise for a story that cries out for a looser, grittier mise-en-scene. The same could be said for the screenplay, which has a tendency to telegraph plot developments and spell out things in dialogue that would be better expressed through a simple glance or gesture. In fact, the crucial final scene between Carlos and Luis is almost ruined by a monologue that runs much longer than it needs to. A Better Life is noble to the very end and that ends up being its undoing.

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