Directed by:Chris Weitz
Every so often a “small” film contains a performance so worthy of recognition the Oscars pluck it from boxoffice obscurity and give it much-due recognition. Such is the case with this modest independent film examining the lives of illegal immigrants living and working in Southern California. Written by a fledgling screenwriter with the most modest of credits to his name and directed by a 40-ish Hollywood type best known for his association with the baboonish American Pie franchise, A Better Life delivers a vivid message wrapped inside an enthralling drama.
Much of the credit for this remarkable accomplishment is due to Demian Bichir, a Mexican actor little known here in the U.S., who finds himself in competition for this year’s Oscar for Best Actor. Despite limited marketing and meager ticket sales, Lifemanages to speak volumes about one of this country’s most troubling social problems. If only it could find an audience worthy of its virtues…
The storyline is simplicity itself; Carlos Galindo, (Bichir) is a Mexican father illegally working in Los Angles as a gardener. His days are filled with the struggles required to raise his teenage son Luis while amassing the funds necessary to purchase a used truck which will allow him to increase his modest earnings. Struggling to equip his son with solid values in the gang-ridden neighborhood in which they live, Carlos finds his quiet life threatened when a fellow worker steals from him. Father and son begin an odyssey across the barrios of L.A. which knits the two of them together, but at an especially terrible price…
Born into a theatrical family and launching his own career at age 14, Bichir has appeared in over 60 films and television series, but American audiences can be forgiven if they fail to recognize him; his only appearances in this country have been as Fidel Castro in Che, the lengthy biography of the Cuban revolutionary and a recurring role in Weeds, a modestly successful cable television series. Movie goers would benefit by seeing more of him - - working with dialogue perfectly suited to the uneducated but world-wise man he portrays and gifted with the ability to speak volumes in the dignified expressions which cross his face, Bichir delivers a performance worthy of the Best Actor nomination he received. Is there a film in recent memory which simultaneously captures and celebrates the dignity of working people in this country?
Shot on a modest budget and featuring a cast of previously unknown actors, Weitz and his cast provide a clear-eyed portrait of what it’s like to live in the shadows, where legal redress isn’t available and vulnerability is as ubiquitous as The Golden State’s smog-filled air.
In America but legally not of it, Bichir’s blue-collar everyman epitomizes the often painful fate of millions of this country’s illegal workers; overwhelmingly honest, doing difficult, low paying work, struggling to give their families a better life…and breaking our laws every day. If the film’s hero is a bit too perfect at times, A Better Life has the courage to serve up, with clear-eyed candor, the intractable challenges faced by the members of this often-invisible community who live and work all around us. The movie’s final scene should provide a wake-up call for all those who refuse to see this complex issue as it really is.
The Verdict? One of the best films of the year, with a standout performance by its leading man and must-see viewing for anyone struggling to make sense of the illegal immigration question.
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