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Better Life, A (Blu-ray Review)

14 Oct, 2011 By: Billy Gil

Street 10/18/11
Box Office $1.76 million
$26.99 DVD, $30.49 Blu-ray
Rated ‘PG-13’ for some violence, language and brief drug use.
Stars Demian Bichir.

A Better Life tells of Carlos (Demian Bichir), a single father trying to provide for his son, Luis (José Julián), and keep him out of trouble in East Los Angeles.

Carlos works as a day laborer but gets a chance to advance himself when his usual employer offers to sell Carlos his truck and gardening tools. He’s able to do so with help from his sister, who was in Carlos’ situation before she was married, and hopes to earn enough to pay her back. But things change when someone takes advantage of Carlos’ good will.

The tale of the Mexican immigrant in Los Angeles is familiar, but director Chris Weitz’s film avoids being overtly obvious by presenting archetypes and subverting them. Bichir’s bruising portrayal of Carlos is touching for its simplicity, in that Carlos’ actions are guided completely by his love for his son, but he makes clear-cut mistakes along the way, while Julián gives welcome complexity to Luis, who is presented as basically a good kid with terrible amounts of pressure all around.

A Better Life sometimes paints its racial and socioeconomic swaths too brightly and in doing so does a disservice to its core story, one that is worth telling. It doesn’t exactly feel inauthentic, but by equating all whites (all of whom are nameless and unsympathetic in the film) with richness and establishment and all other ethnicities with poorness and gangs (in one scene, Asian men are seen fighting in a parking lot), the film’s message is undercut.

Weitz’s film mostly works because of its strong performances as well as the heart-pounding tension that sneaks up and keeps the story moving. His film moves you because its characters choose to act in order to try to better their situation, no matter the outcome, drawing up empathy for people like Carlos and Luis — it often leaves you questioning what you would do in their situation, and that’s a powerful tool for leading to understanding regarding the complex immigration situation in our country. Carlos’s sister tells him, “Buy the truck. And if you do well, like you say, everything’s gonna change. That’s why we came here, right?” In doing so, Weitz presents the conflicting natures of the American dream with our immigration policy. Just don’t look here for any easy answers.

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