‘A Better Life’ tackles illegal immigration without becoming an issue film

Somebody in Hollywood finally grew a pair and made a movie about immigration, if not the immigration "issue."

Chris Weitz is far too nimble a filmmaker to fall into the issue-movie trap, and in "A Better Life" shrewdly leverages his best asset - his skill at movies on the father/son axis.

Weitz made the superior dramedy "About a Boy," ingeniously built around an older man (a father figure, to be specific) mentoring a younger one.

His more sober "A Better Life" is anchored by Demian Bichir, a De Niro-ish Mexican actor cast here as Carlos, an illegal immigrant trying to start a landscaping business while shepherding his teen boy (Jose Julian) through a gang-plagued East L.A. high school.

Carlos is a laborer whose boss is retiring, with an offer - buy the truck and the tools, inherit the business, get the proverbial better life.

This leads to one of the year's best sequences, one that follows Carlos' first shift as a business owner. On this day, he's the guy in the truck, pulling up in front of the day laborers he stood among not so long ago. He's management now, though in one exhilarating moment, he scales a palm tree to personally trim the highest branches, just to get a long view of the world below, one that now offers a sliver of hope.

"A Better Life" is far too realistic a movie to dwell there for long. The truck disappears, and so do Carlos' dreams, but not his debts. Of course he cannot go to the police; he must go out of his way to avoid them. His desperate search becomes the movie's narrative. Similarities to "The Bicycle Thief" are entirely intentional. Much of the story's emotional strength derives from Carlos' efforts to involve his son, who's vaguely embarrassed by his immigrant, landscaper father. (Of course, he's a teenager, so maybe he's embarrassed by his dad on general principles.)

A secondary drama, of the son teetering on the edge of gang involvement, feels more dated, less urgent. In fact the movie falters when Bichir isn't on screen.

When he is, it works, in a tough sort of way. "A Better Life" is a movie with a skin as weathered and leathery as Carlos'. It doesn't waste any time with sentimental appeals. In this movie, illegal residents make no claim to citizenship, no fuss when they get pinched and deported.

The movie's point of view is matter of fact. As long as there is a border separating regions of unbalanced opportunity, and that border can be breached, it will be.

As long as there are holes in the fence, as long as there are fathers.

A Better Life

Directed by Chris Weitz. With Dolores Heredia, Demian Bichir, Carlos Linares, Jose Julian, Joaquin Cosio. Distributed by Summit Entertainment.

Running time: 1 hours, 37 minutes.

Parent's guide: PG-13 ().