“A Better Life” Review

A Better Life (2011)

‘A Better Life’ follows the story of Carlos Galindo (Demián Bichir), a Mexican illegal immigrant in the US who works as a gardener at rich people’s mansions. Carlos is also a single father, raising his teenage son Luis (José Julián). When Carlos sees the chance to better his and his son’s life with the purchase of a new truck, he scraps every dollar and buys it. When the truck is stolen, desperate Carlos teams up with his son to try to return it.

Despite its simple premise, the film draws the viewer into the world of the main character, Carlos, almost from the first scenes, making the audience sympathize with Carlos, and wishing him to succeed in his endeavours at whatever cost. ‘A Better Life’ does this brilliantly. Bichir is mesmerising to watch because he is so believable in his role of a struggling, hardworking father, who just wants something better for his only son. It is remarkable what a brilliant acting by the lead can achieve. With no tricks or pointless special effects, and with some amazing acting and a meaningful storyline, ‘A Better Life’ seems like a breath of fresh air.

The unknown cast, lack of viable promotion and a contrived trailer may give an impression that the film belongs to some foreign film festival at best, instantly to be discarded upon seeing. This is a false impression as ‘A Better Life’ is a film full of meaning and portrays an ordinary life with the skill which is quite extraordinary. The film features Hispanic cast, was co-financed and released by Summit Entertainment, and was directed by Chris Weitz, who, incidentally, also directed ‘American Pie’ (1999) and ‘About a Boy’ (2002), as well as the more recent ‘The Twilight Saga: New Moon’ (2009).

Although the plots of ‘A Better Life’ and artsy ‘Biutiful’ (2010) are completely different, these two films can, nevertheless, be compared. In ‘A Better Life’ as in ‘Biutiful’ Demián Bichir and Javier Bardem give amazing performances, portraying fathers who struggle to make ends meet in a brutal world. However, while Alejandro Iñárritu’s ‘Biutiful’ struggles to deliver anything more than a muddy narrative and unclear premise, ‘A Better Life’ sends a very strong message and provides a powerful, straightforward story which is entertaining to watch. In that way, it almost reminds of another movie, ‘The Pursuit of Happiness’ (2006), which follows a similar plot. However, although ‘The Pursuit of Happiness’ is as inspirational as ‘A Better Life’, it still lacks the sincerity and realism of the latter.

Undoubtedly drawing inspiration from a classic ‘The Bicycle Thieves’ (1948), the issues which concern ‘A Better Life’ are as old as time. Ranging from the American Dream themes to issues of morality, guilt, remorse and forgiveness in the modern world, ‘A Better Life’ provides for an all-encompassing glance into the life of the society’s outsiders, while, at the same time, remaining narrative-simple and clear as to its message. 

In recent years we have seen a number of good films portraying Mexican illegal migration quite realistically. One of these is ‘Sin Nombre’ (2009) – directed by Cary Fukunaga (‘Jane Eyre’ (2011)) – a beautifully shot thriller, which won numerous awards. Although ‘A Better Life’ may not quite achieve the standard of ‘Sin Nombre’, the film tries hard to give this realistic feel, and manages to convey just the right emotions most of the time. Carlos Galindo, being an illegal immigrant in the movie, does not give an impression of being just a US Border Agency statistic or someone who wants to break the law to become rich. Instead, he gives an impression of a very honest and good person who just strives for a better life, and does his best given the circumstances. Incidentally, A Better Life’ also provides a nice introduction to the culture and lifestyle of Mexico, for example by showing rodeo shows, and featuring Mexican folk music.

I have already referred to Demián Bichir’s brilliant acting, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award in the category of the Best Leading Actor, but I can do it all over again since Bichir’s performance is one of a kind in this movie. Bichir really brings out the humane qualities in his character, making him sympathetic and strong at the same time. Carlos (his character) is sometimes physically and emotionally wrecked in the movie, but, at no time point, is he totally defeated.

The main weakness of this film is, yet again, that it is too predictable and may appear quite naive to some. At other times it is also rather slow, but with the film’s goal to move the audience emotionally, these weaknesses actually contribute to bringing out some of the film’s best qualities, e.g. its ability to make the audience think hard about some of the philosophical life questions, and make the audience believe in the infinite capabilities of the human will and spirit. José Julián, who plays Carlos’s son, could have been more expressive in his performance too, but for a start-up actor, this is hardly a criticism. The other puzzling thing in this movie is its ending, which feels like a spare part compared to the rest of the movie, producing confusion and unsatisfaction.

The upshot is that ‘A Better Life’ is a simple film, which tells a simple story. However, because it conveys some of the most important messages in cinema and is charged with so much emotion (gracias a Demián Bichir), it deserves to be seen. 6/10

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One Response to “A Better Life” Review

  1. Pingback: The Academy Award Nominees 2012: Best Picture & Actor/Actress in a Leading Role | dbmoviesblog

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