Talking Movies

July 25, 2011

A Better Life

Chris Weitz, whose last two directorial outings were the unbearably awful The Golden Compass and Twilight: New Moon, causes the earth to shift on its axis by following them up with an intelligent drama…

A Better Life could be uncharitably described as ‘The Bicycle Thieves, outsourced to Mexicans’ as the plot is driven by the increasingly desperate search by a father and son for a stolen vehicle vital to the father’s employment. Our hero Carlos (Demian Bechir) is a stolid gardener living illegally in America and working in Beverly Hills, but living far away from such luxuries. He sleeps on the couch while his brattish teenage son Luis (seriously, this kid is as annoying as Damian Wayne in recent Batman comics, and that’s some going) takes their house’s one bedroom. Carlos’ back-breaking labour is all for the sake of earning enough money to give a well-educated Luis a better life, and he seizes the chance to buy the truck of his boss Blasco Martinez (Quantum of Solace’s villainous general Joaquin Cosio). However, Carlos has become American enough to suffer from the maxim ‘no good deed goes unpunished’, and so begins a desperate search for the truck which is his livelihood, and which he cannot ask the police to trace…

Demian Bechir is a huge star in Mexico, unsurprising given that he looks like Ryan Reynolds in ten years’ time; if Reynolds came from below rather than above the American border. Bechir’s character-filled face wonderfully conveys indefatigable stoicism, endless compassion, and steely will. The villain is a subtle mixture of malicious guile and motiveless compassion, something which infuriates Jose Julian’s Luis, even as he convincingly comes to respect his father’s values which he previously despised. Their reconciliation is part of a fascinating examination of identity. Blasco wanted enough money to buy his own farm in Mexico, Carlos just wanted out of Mexico, but he’s quick to rebuke a sneering Luis that with a sombrero on him Luis is instantly another Gaucho, for all his assimilation.

The startling first shot of Luis’s school makes it look like a prison, an impression which the film pointedly does not dispel, as the system has given up hope on these cultural immigrants. The legally resident Latinos, like Luis, communicate solely in the language of gangsta rap, which leads to thinking and acting in ways with only two endpoints – jail or morgue. The stupidity of appropriating this culture and rejecting their own is exposed by the blind terror Luis displays when he has to venture into South Central, the source of the culture he’s adopted, where he sees a slogan daubed on a wall – ‘Too Many Mexicans. Not Enough Bullets’…

Weitz and originating producer Paul Junger Witt have crafted an affecting story of the people who live in the shadows of a sun-kissed world, and this is well worth seeing.

3.5/5

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