With all the hullabaloo over illegal aliens these past couple years -- a subject on which everyone seems to have an opinion, but there is very little agreement -- leave it to filmmakers to give us some much-needed insight on a topic that's not going away any time soon. Now joining the ranks of 'The Visitor,' 'Maria Full of Grace' and 'Crossing Over' amongst others is 'A Better Life' -- the story of a father and son trying to live the American Dream with the few resources available to them and without the legal right to do so. Definitely a big change of pace from the lighthearted summer fare we've been getting from Hollywood as of late, but a welcome one all the same and one worth looking into.
Hit the jump for the full review.
What's It About?
'A Better Life' is about an undocumented illegal immigrant from Mexico named Carlos who lives in East Los Angeles with a job as a landscaper. His also has a teenage son, Luis, who's more interested in joining a gang than going to school. When his employer moves back to Mexico to start a new life with his earnings, Carlos ultimately borrows a hefty amount of money from his sister to buy the guy's truck, clients and landscaping equipment in order to start a business of his own even though he doesn't have a driver's license or a green card. For a while there, things are looking up for Carlos, but things soon take a turn for the worse and it's up to him and his son to reclaim their lives before the damage becomes irreparable.
Why Should I See This and Not 'Green Lantern'?
Well, not only was 'Green Lantern' disappointing, but with all the big-budget summer blockbusters clogging up theaters these days, it's a breath of fresh air to come across a movie like this that's more substance over style. It's about real people confronting real problems, and we don't know about you guys, but those tend to be the best kinds of movies there are. We're not saying that this is a Best Picture contender by any means, it's just a nice way to balance out all the popcorn fluff.
More specifically, the thing that really sets this film apart is its perspective. Call us crazy, but the United States government doesn't seem to be taking too kindly to illegal aliens these days, especially the ones who are allegedly starting wildfires. Immigration is the news almost every day, and it's one of the most heated debates that'll come up in the 2012 election. However, it's rare that we get to hear anything from the illegal aliens' perspective, let alone spend 98 minutes in their shoes. As controversial as it may be from the outset, it's a voice that deserves to be heard because the conversation's been awfully one-sided.
That said, this movie isn't out to demonize politicians or a slander the USA. Rather, it's just a tough movie that puts a human face on the daily struggles that so many people experience yet never get a chance to convey. That was a smart move; it helps steer the conversation away from the politics by focusing on the human angle, which everyone can relate to. It might not be the easiest thing for audiences to empathize with, but no matter what side of the immigration debate you fall on, it's the father-son story that matters here.
And even if it weren't about illegal immigrants, there aren't a whole lot of movies out there told from the Mexican or Mexican-American viewpoint that make their way to American theaters. A fresh perspective on a timeless theme like the relationship between fathers and sons is an added reason to give 'A Better Life' a chance.
Also, some of the acting here is fantastic, particularly Demian Bichir, who plays our protagonist, Carlos. We've never seen him in anything before, but here's an actor who's got a real presence about him and doesn't have to do a whole lot to make it hit home. All you have to do is just focus on his stern, haggard, vulnerable face to understand everything that's going on underneath, and that goes a long way. Just a really impressive performance, and newcomer Jose Julian is also solidly convincing as his hotheaded son, Luis. The two work well off each other, and their development from the time we meet them to the time we part is continually interesting, if somewhat predictable.
The only thing that holds this movie back from being something great is that it ultimately conveys its message with a pretty heavy hand. The moment 'A Better Life' starts aiming for the fences by gunning for the heartstrings, it ends up creating something more like melodramatic schmaltz than evoking genuine emotion. Not a huge setback for the movie considering how brief these moments are, it just made us wish it had taken some notes from 'The Visitor' in regards to how you passionately and effectively address an issue without sacrificing the its authenticity.
Is It in Subtitles?
About half of it is, but you shouldn't let a little reading deter you from missing out on what this movie has to say.
Is It Worth Seeing?
While it could have been more subtle at times and we realize that this kind of subject matter might not be all that appealing to everyone, 'A Better Life' does succeed on many levels, and it's a story that's as important as it is pertinent. We can't help but think that this tale would have been flat-out unforgettable had it come in the form of a documentary that depicted the actual struggles of illegal aliens trying to sustain themselves in this day and age, but as is, it certainly works.
7/10 Horatio Algers