Jan 26, 2012

A Better Life

This movie may be the first film to truly broach the subject of immigration in the US as it currently stands, on a cruel impasse of hypocrisy, blatant scapegoating and political inaction.
Directed by Chris Weitz, and starring Demián Bichir, who got an Oscar nomination for his work, it summarizes the enormous and heartrending complexity of the immigration issue through the story of Carlos Galindo, an undocumented gardener in LA.
Galindo is the single father of a teenage son, Luis (well played by José Julián), who was born in the US and is already an entitled American brat; not connected to his roots or sympathetic to newcomers who stand on a street corner begging for a day job, just like his dad when he arrived.
Like many well-intentioned message films, A Better Life is not very original, and does not have a sense of humor. It does show what it must be like to live on the outside looking in, like a zero that no one notices unless they want their hedges trimmed. But for its short running time (hour and a half), it is slow going. Weitz's rhythm is leaden, the writing feels by the numbers, and despite the golden cinematography by Javier Aguirresarobe, the cool homie soundtrack and the unobtrusive, elegant score by Alexandre Desplat, the movie seems a bit like an after-school special. The main problem is that Carlos Galindo is a saint, and saintly characters are not very interesting. Bichir works very hard to give Carlos a rounded character. He is a very decent man, but he seems to have no unruly passions, no edges. He lets the kid give him too much lip. He has no time for women. He is cautious, hardworking, and wants to be as much under the radar as possible. He lacks ambition because he is afraid that the migra will come and take away his life. I could imagine all those nasty people who are always screaming "send them back" rolling their eyes at the sight of this angel without wings.
But to judge from the very authentic locations in the film, Carlos lives outside of his own vibrant immigrant society by choice. It is clear that East and South Central LA are lively alternate Latino republics where a lot of people, legal and not, have perfectly rounded lives that include Mexican rodeos and nightclubs. This guy simply chooses not to partake in the fun. Most of the time, he is a bit of a bore.
The plot starts humming when Carlos is enticed by his boss to buy a truck from him so he can have his own business, but he demurs because as an illegal alien, he can't get a driver's licence. After much soul searching and much effort, he buys the truck. And of course he loses it.
I kept waiting for the moment that got Bichir's acting noticed. Bichir has two incredible moments, one when he reacts at the humiliation proffered by a punk in jail; and a speech to his son in which his feelings are so raw and ring so true, you want to smack him upside the head with an Oscar, cause he deserves it.
Only towards the end the movie accrues intensity as we get to see the inhumanity of the mass deportations, the untenable system that brazenly exploits and then penalizes these immigrants. I'm glad Bichir is getting all this attention (he's been utterly cool, dedicating his performance to all the undocumented immigrants), because everybody else in America is hell bent on sweeping this urgent problem under the carpet, or worse, providing idiotic solutions like building walls and deporting 400,000 people a year. The final scene is sure to give massive heart attacks to the Joe Arpaios of America. Send the illegals back, and they will sneak back in, until their services are not wanted anymore.
This doesn't make A Better Life a great movie, but it can serve as a great polemic in high schools and Washington think tanks. To be a better movie, it needs less sanctimony and a director with a bit more punch.

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