Simple, profound character study
The central figure of A Better Life is Carlos Galindo, a gardener played by Demián Bichir in a performance as modest and as epic as the movie he's in. Carlos is loving with the seedlings he transfers to his clients' yards. He is loving with his teenage son, Luis (José Julián), who waves him off with attitude.
Personally and professionally, Carlos is about getting transplants to root in new soil. He is a day laborer, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico. He toils long hours. To Luis, Carlos is a little man with little dreams and less cash, unlike the gangbangers with big dreams and bigger bankrolls, who want to recruit the high-schooler.
On its surface, Chris Weitz's movie is the odyssey of an undocumented worker's search for his stolen landscaping truck, a tale not unlike Vittorio de Sica's The Bicycle Thief in which father and son form a closer bond.
Its deceptive simplicity makes A Better Life so emotionally profound. This film based on a story by Roger L. Simon is a compassionate character study of a man modeling the values of heart, hard work, self-respect, and self-reliance to his spawn.
The film rests on the slight shoulders of Bichir, an exceptional actor whose way of holding back his emotions draws the audience to him. Because his Carlos has such bedrock decency, there is no self-pity in his weathered face.
There is worry, perhaps, but also alegría, joy, in the company of Luis. Alegría in the tending to gardens of fabulously wealthy employers to whom he is mostly invisible and who are blind to his art. Look as Carlos embraces a palm tree like a dance partner, shimmying up to prune away its dead fronds. Bichir's face contains multitudes.
Weitz's observant and sympathetic film notes, but does not make political capital of, the irony that though Carlos is in America illegally, he is a model citizen, unlike the native-born gangbangers.
Except for one line of dialogue about the American dream (delivered by the amigo who wants to sell his truck to Carlos), there is not a false note in the fine screenplay by Eric Eason or in the deeply felt performances.
After Bichir, Gabriel Chavarría should be singled out for his nuanced turn as a coworker who tests both Carlos' patience and his principle.
In its low-key portrait of illegal immigrants and its trust in the audience to draw its own conclusions, A Better Life recalls The Visitor. Like that film, Weitz's movie is equal parts heartache and hope, a privileged glimpse inside the lives of the new generation of American dreamers.