A-list Hollywood directors are seldom very unpredictable. When they do take a break from more commercial projects, it's usually to make a “prestige” film of the type that feels constructed to attract Oscars. (Even King of Crass Michael Bay doubtless had visions of that little golden man dancing in his head while filming Pearl Harbor, as horribly mistaken as he turned out to be.)
So you've got to give Chris Weitz credit for really doing something no one would have expected of him with A Better Life. He started out launching the American Pie franchise of routine (Sean William Scott aside) yet highly successful sex comedies with brother Paul. Together they co-directed the uninspiring Chris Rock vehicle Down to Earth, then impressed everyone (especially ready-to-be-offended Brits) by doing a fine job adapting the Nick Hornby novel About a Boy.
They then went their separate ways, at least as directors. Paul has since remained kinda-sorta interesting without scoring a hit apart from last year's Little Fockers, the kind of money gig that does no one proud. But Chris has flourished—The Golden Compass was one of the best non-Harry Potter fantasy adventures in recent years, even if the rest of the world embraced it more than American audiences. And whatever you think of the Twilight movies, it was certainly a career plum for him to snag middle chapter New Moon.
With that on his resume, he surely could have chosen any pet project he liked, whether of the Oscar bait or giant-toy type. But A Better Life is neither. It's an almost suicidal endeavor by mainstream Hollywood standards: A small-scale bilingual drama about illegal immigrant workers, with no name actors, sex appeal or violent melodrama as a hook. To an extent, as has been noted elsewhere, it's a Mexican-emigré, L.A.-set remake of bleak Italian neorealist classic The Bicycle Thief. How money is that? Zilch.
If an unknown director (or even a known Latino one like Gregory Nava or Leon Ichaso) had made this, A Better Life would have played a few film festivals, then been lucky to scare up a minimal arthouse release before vanishing into VOD limbo. Weitz's signature lends it a shot at greater visibility. But it also reveals something about himself—having made a film that stands to be of virtually no benefit to him in the eternal industry game of who's-on-top, he's outed himself as a guy who just wants to make movies that mean something. His agent must be at wit's end.
“A better life” is the simple goal of Carlos Galindo (Demian Bechir, who played Fidel Castro in Soderbergh's Che and Esteban Reyes on Weeds), who smuggled himself, his wife and baby north from their Mexican village to Gringolandia some years ago.
But things haven't exactly worked out as planned. When the American Dream failed to materialize on schedule, his wife split. Son Luis (Jose Julian) is now a sullen teen oblivious to his native heritage and language, at risk of becoming another school-dropout gangbanger.
Carlos at least has a steady job gardening at rich people's homes in the employ of Blasco (Joaquin Cosio), though the latter is pressuring him to buy out his truck and business. This is a big leap not just monetarily, but because Carlos remains an illegal, having been cheated by the lawyer who once promised him papers for a hefty fee. Without citizenship or a driver's license, he's just one traffic violation away from deportation at any time. On the other hand, if he doesn't make that purchase, he'll be back on the street corner jostling for day work alongside every other, younger Latino emigré.
Carlos' exaltation upon finally having his own wheels, and with it perhaps truly improving life for himself and Luis, is all the more infectious for bubbling up from such an essentially modest man. Then something terrible happens—an instance of misplaced trust not only dashes these new hopes but threatens to make our protagonists' lot worse than it's ever been.
Manito director Eric Eason's screenplay (from a story idea by Roger L. Simon) has moments of rather blunt incident that both he and Weitz could have shaped into more nuanced form. But what the film nails vividly—and this is crucial—is the strength of the bond between father and son (tenuous as that initially appears), plus the extreme fragility of their place in society.
Like their Bicycle Thief antecedents, they scrape by until a more desperate party's crime endangers even that threadbare stability. For most of us, a job or housing loss would be terrible...but it wouldn't result in starvation, homelessness, or having to leave the country. We have some safety nets in place. For Carlos and Luis, it takes just a cruel twist or two of fate for those worst-case-scenarios to become potential realities.
A Better Life eventually extends beyond the Bicycle Thief blueprint to a deeper engagement with current deportation policies, detention facilities for illegals and the remote chance of being granted asylum. Yet it resists overt political messaging, or manipulating us into formulaic tearjerking. As unimposing stylistically as it is understated dramatically, this is no knockout masterpiece, but emotionally honest storytelling that resonates well after the final credits. It's as if Chris Weitz volunteered to give up corporate law practice to do pro bono work for a struggling nonprofit—a decision his high-flying colleagues doubtless consider nuts, but one you can't help but admire for its purity of intent.
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