Dir. Chris Weitz; writ. Eric Eason; feat. Demián Bichir, José Julián, Joaquín Cosio, Carlos Linares, Bobby Soto, Richard Cabral, Gabriel Chavarria. (PG-13)
It might be a Mexican-American version of the classic 1948 Italian neorealist film Bicycle Thieves, but A Better Life could not have come at a more appropriate time, as immigration policy advocates continue to plead with the feds to rule on the constitutionality of a raft of new immigration laws being implemented in a variety of states. The film also comes on the heels of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist José Antonio Vargas’s startling and nervy revelation of his undocumented status in an essay he wrote for the The New York Times.
No matter where you stand on the subject, A Better Life offers an honest and deeply moving depiction of a Mexican immigrant’s struggle to provide for his son and raise him well enough to never have to follow the same difficult path he chose. While the themes have been confronted before (it’s comparable to, but less melodramatic than, Under the Same Moon, and isn’t paced as gradually as the locally produced 2007 drama August Evening), A Better Life has its own distinct voice and a tender stroke of humanity that keeps it from being lumped together with any overstated political message.
In a nuanced and award-worthy performance reminiscent of Independent Spirit nominee Pedro Castañeda in August Evening and Oscar nominee Richard Jenkins in The Visitor, Mexican actor Demián Bichir (Che) embodies a father not only desperate to find a lifeline as a day laborer (his truck and landscaping tools have been stolen), but to also reach his teenage son on a level of emotional understanding and mutual respect.
The stakes are high in A Better Life and Bichir matches the film’s tormented tone with a portrayal of a man overcome by both fear and faith. It’s the latter, however, that encourages him to fight for the things that are most important to him no matter what may stand in the way.
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