The first thing you notice about A Better Life is that its Mexican characters are not stereotypes. They don’t use phrases like “¡Hasta la vista, baby!”, nor do they use the grammatically incorrect “¿Comprendo?”. Okay, the main character is a gardener, but we’ll forgive him that. Refreshingly his son is a pretty good kid. He is not tatted down; he is not pursuing the Gangsta Life. The Hispanics in A Better Life are truly looking for “una vida mejor”, not mooching off the United States government, as many in today’s right wing would have you believe. Although the movie does dabble in the overly sentimental and occasionally feels preachy, it is a pretty solid and impressive approach to a story that needs to be told.
Carlos is an illegal immigrant who has made his way to Los Angeles as a gardener for rich white people. Despite working hard seemingly seven days a week, he never seems to make enough money. He lives with his son Luis who sleeps in the only bed in the house – Carlos sleeps on the couch. After years of financial mediocrity, Carlos finally catches a break when he buys a truck with which he starts his own business. But then, since all good things come to an end, the truck is stolen and Carlos and Luis set out to find it. As they search, the pair begin to understand each other and their circumstances, wondering if they will ever be allowed to succeed in America.
One of the movie’s strengths is that it treats its subjects with respect. As one would expect, Carlos has little if any formal education, but he is hardly stupid. So many movies simplify people of lower income into numbskulls and imbeciles as if the only reason they can’t make ends meet is that they’re just morons. Fortunately this picture recognizes that maybe the reason illegals can’t succeed in America is some government hypocrisy or a failed system, not the characters’ intellects. Luis, though lacking in book-smarts, is hardly an idiot on the street. He knows the ways of the world. He is not oblivious to the facts.
For bringing attention to a story that needs to be told, A Better Life must be commended. For respecting its characters and their situation it must also be commended. The performances are good. Damián Bichir plays Carlos with an selfless honesty that captures the character’s love for his son and discouragement about the world around him. However, somewhere along the line, the film makes a bit of a wrong turn. It gets caught up in a bit of sentimentality. Near the end, we get the obligatory scene where father and son cry together and I thought, couldn’t that have been avoided? A really good movie does not need touchy-feely dialogue to explain how its characters feel. Remember, “show, not tell!”
For a film that sounds so depressing, it is a movie full of hope. Hope for a better life. I suppose that a pessimist like myself would have preferred a more bitter approach to the subject matter; however, now we’re getting into just personal preference and not actual concrete criticism. Yes, I would have liked a much less hopeful angle on the story. Sometimes good ol’ Hollywood escapism annoys me. And unfortunately I’m going to say it again: the music score bothered me. It isn’t subtle, it intrudes into the movie. Alexandre Desplat, who has a reputation for writing haunting, subtle music somehow falters here. In scenes in which I would prefer silence, the orchestra soars up for emotional effect. I guess my problem is that music in some ways tells us how to feel, and when a score is intrusive or overly noticeable it’s like being hit over the end with a bottle while someone’s shouting, “Feel the way we want you to!”
All that aside, this is a decent film that you should make an effort to see. It’s far from perfect, but as a whole I can’t really complain.