Review of “A Better Life”

“A Better Life,” starring Demián Bichir and José Julián, directed by Chris Weitz.

Los Angeles director Chris Weitz‘s  “A Better Life” is a deceptively simple story of a single parent raising his son. The film lets us spend time with Carlos and Luís in and around their East LA home, and is as much Carlos’ as it is Luís’ film. The beauty of the camera work, direction, and acting is that we feel we are with them every step of the way. Carlos, the father, played sympathetically by Demián Bichir, is a Mexican undocumented worker with a son, Luís, a typical surly teen, beautifully acted by José Julián. Not long after Luís was born, Carlos’ wife left him for a man with legal papers who had a better job, saddling Carlos with the child.

Carlos works, sleeps, and cooks—too tired to take off his clothes and boots at night. The film opens as he rises from the couch to wake Luís, to whom he’s given the only bedroom. He rags his son about his school attendance and stresses the importance of an education so he’ll have a better life than he himself has as a gardener for wealthy Anglos.
Director Weitz takes us through Carlos’ workday. He and his partner, who drives a truck, maintain vast lawns beside sparkling pools, weed flower beds, transplant huge shrubs, and cut dead palm fronds from 50 ft. trees, using nothing more than a wide leather belt and crampons.
Luís is caught between the world of staying straight and that of joining a gang. He gets in trouble with the cops for an altercation at school and protects his dad’s illegal status by telling an officer he can’t be notified because he’s working. Luís is let go when he proves he is not a gang-banger.
Through the camera lens and Weitz’s direction, “A Better Life” allows us to look, like voyeurs, into the reality of life for the immigrant workers—some of whom have only a bunk bed to relax on, in a tiny room shared with other casual laborers. The sun, seen through a dusty haze, is always shining; there are palms and garishly colored tropical flowers everywhere. Were it not for the peeling paint on homes and buildings, broken-down cars and trucks, and graffiti that says, “Two many Mexicans, not enough bullets,” it could pass for a paradise.
Schools are heavily guarded and patrolled like prisons. We get a sense, too, of the deadly social order of the gangs in East LA. Like the Mafia, they are close to their families; delighting in watching their pre-pubescent sisters singing karaoke as female relatives look on. 
Carlos’ troubles begin when his partner doesn’t pick him up one day because he’s seeing someone about buying his truck—which he had initially offered to Carlos. So Carlos returns to a corner with other day laborers waiting for a job; trusting and naïve, he befriends Santiago (Carlos Linares), a man more down and out than he, which ends up as a huge mistake. Sensing a lost opportunity, he borrows money from his married, middle-class sister to buy his partner’s truck. The shots of Carlos driving around, smiling, are delightful. In the back of his mind, he knows he must drive carefully so as not to attract a traffic cop’s attention.
His joy is short-lived as he is betrayed. He now must rely on his street-smart son to help him right the wrong done to him. While waiting for the opportune moment, Carlos and Luís go to a charro (a Mexican rodeo), where we can almost smell the food, the manure, and the sweat. Over a meal, Carlos fills in Luís on the boy’s past. Luís replies existentially, “What’s the point?”
With Luís beside him, Carlos pulls off a heart-pounding, daring act, which cements their relationship but lands Carlos in a detention center. We feel as though we are with him as, after a humiliating strip-search, he listens, along with shell-shocked, unshaven men and boys now wearing orange jumpsuits, to an armed, white guard reciting the center’s regulations. An immigration attorney advises a chained and manacled Carlos of his options and warns him against trying to return once deported.
Luís goes home to an empty house, pausing at the kitchen garden his father once tended. His loneliness is palpable. The film ends, the screen goes dark, we pick up our jackets and leave for our world, leaving the immigrant workers to theirs—often nearly invisible as they clean our hotel rooms and homes, work in the fields picking our food, doing our landscaping, and taking care of our kids.
Under current federal laws and those of Arizona and states following its lead, parents are deported while leaving behind naturalized children to fend for themselves. This results in heartbreaking scenarios and trauma, as shown in “A Better Life.” And fences and walls have been or are being built along the U.S.-Mexican border. Police and vigilante patrols are beefed up; people killed.
We must do all we can to protest these inhumane conditions and the system that creates them. Perhaps one day, people like Luís need not be separated from their families. 
> The article above was written by Gaetana Caldwell-Smith, and first appeared in the August 2011 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.