Monday, July 04, 2011

“A Better Life” – Movie Review




Recently in my movie class, we saw the drama “A Better Life”, directed by Chris Weitz (“About A Boy” and “American Pie”).  



When an illegal alien’s truck is stolen, he enlists the aid of his teenage son to try to recover it so he can resume his landscaping job – but will he be able to evade immigration agents who threaten to separate him from his boy?



Carlos Galindo is a hard-working landscaper who awakes each morning at sunrise in his East Los Angeles home where he sleeps on the couch so his teenage son Luis can spend the night in an actual bed in the only bedroom in the house.   From there, he waits for Blasco, his boss, to arrive in his pick-up truck to take him to his scheduled appointment for the day’s work and together, they make the long drive to a wealthy West Los Angeles neighborhood.  Carlos would gladly love to have not only his own truck, but his own business, too, so he could be his own boss and make some real money to give Luis the upbringing he deserves -- but being an illegal alien who entered this country from Mexico nearly seven years ago, such opportunities are few and far between. 

One day, Blasco informs Carlos he’s returning to Mexico now that he’s made a substantial savings in the landscaping business thanks to the wealthy homeowners in West L.A.; Blasco’s plan is to purchase his own land somewhere in Mexico and live out the rest of his days as a farmer with his family.  Worried for his best employee’s well-being, he encourages Carlos to buy his truck so that he can assume the business and the clientele they’ve both worked to cultivate.  While Carlos would like nothing more than to do this, he’s forced to decline simply because he doesn’t have the $12,000 Blasco is asking.  Threatened with the possibility of completely losing his income, Carlos swallows his pride and asks his sister, a Los Angeles maid, for the money; knowing her brother’s work ethic and concerned for her nephew Luis, she gives Carlos the money she’s collected for her meager savings over the years so he can buy the truck. 

Now running the business and in need of a reliable co-worker, Carlos takes his truck to the nearby street corner where he knows Mexican day workers gather early each morning in the hope that they can earn some money; Carlos, being the ethical type, picks up Santiago, a man who earlier showed him a small kindness, hoping that this gesture will in some way repay the man.  Together, they go out on a landscaping job, but while engaged in the work, Carlos discovers that Santiago has just stolen his new truck, along with the gardening tools and his cell phone.  Joined by Luis, Carlos sets out in the dangerous East L.A. in an effort to try to reclaim his truck.  But even if he is able to recover the vehicle, can Carlos succeed in eluding the immigration agents who threaten to send him back to Mexico?



Prior to the screening, our instructor lectured us about the post-World War II neo-realist films that came from Italy, including and especially Vittorio De Sica’s “The Bicycle Thief”, to which he favorably compared “A Better Life”. After seeing “A Better Life”, I now understand the reason for the comparison – and completely agree with the favorable likeness.  I was in no way prepared for how much I loved this movie.  In the beginning, I thought that the film was going to have the look and feel of one of those righteous-cause-of-the-week made-for-TV movies, but it wound up developing into so much more. 

This story is very compelling and fraught with suspenseful moments, performed by a number of actors with minimal – if any – acting experience.   Additionally, it manages to humanize the immigrant community and provides an insightful back-story as to how Carlos and his family came to this country; along the way, while on a quest for the truck, Carlos has difficult moments with his son, but ultimately, forms an unbreakable bond with Luis – especially when their familial ties are threatened.  I highly recommend this movie because it is a well-made film; however, if you strongly disagree with the premise on which it is based – the illegal immigrant issue being a particular hot-button topic in this country these days – then you may not be able to appreciate the story. 

Director Chris Weitz was interviewed before the screening.  Just in case you’re unfamiliar with his work, he has a rather varied and eclectic track record.  It was a great interview and he spoke most eloquently about how he came to make the movie and the experience of filming and casting “A Better Life”.  He said that what drew him to the project was the fact that he is the product of immigrants in his own family – an Hispanic mother and German grandfather on his father’s side.  Also, he mentioned that one of the actors who auditioned was a young man who was not a professional  – he came from a poor family and had to take something like three buses to get to the audition, a two and a half hour commute.  Hearing this story, Weitz felt that the kid had enough dedication to take the job seriously, so he hired him. 


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