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Demián Bichir and José Julián of A Better Life | Summit

Review: A Better Life Examines Illegal Immigration Issue

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Demián Bichir and José Julián of A Better Life | Summit

Demián Bichir and José Julián of A Better Life | Summit

When American Reunion, the fourth film in the American Pie series (not counting all of the deplorable straight-to-DVD spin-offs), came to theaters last summer, it was a quick reminder that it really has been thirteen years since the original film. The original film is by no means a comedy classic in the ranks of Some Like it Hot or Tootsie, but thanks to smart casting decisions, honest efforts at drawing well-rounded characters and well-executed set pieces, it had its moments that the ensuing films simply did not match.

The first film was the only one written and directed by the Weitz brothers Chris and Paul, who were labeled as up and comers in the cinematic comedy scene at the turn of the century. They followed up American Pie with mixed results: Down to Earth earned them atrocious reviews, About a Boy earned them an Oscar nomination.

The two brothers have been making films independent of each other ever since, and their choices have been, um peculiar. Certainly they’ve strayed from their comedic roots. For Pete’s sake, Chris directed a Twilight film, a film which was hilarious, albeit for unintentional reasons. He continues to move further away from the franchise that made him famous with his 2011 film A Better Life, a sobering and moving drama about a family of illegal Mexican immigrants in Los Angeles.

The family isn’t much of a family at all; it’s a father (played beautifully by Demian Bichir) and his teenage son (Jose Julian).  The father, Carlos, works as a gardener with one person. His son, Luis, is an irresponsible troublemaker, at the age when inclusion of the local gangs is starting to become a real possibility. Carlos is aware of this impending danger, and wants to move out of the bad neighborhood they currently reside in so that Luis is not surrounded by these gangs. He wants a better life for the both of them.

So when his partner offers to sell him his truck, and therefore the business, Carlos borrows the money necessary to do so. Carlos is gleeful; the American dream has swiftly become a reality. That is, until his truck is stolen by a day laborer he employs. Obviously, Carlos can’t go to the police; they’ll send him back to Mexico and won’t ever wonder about the whereabouts of the truck.  Carlos has to take matters into his own hands, and enlists Luis to help with the search.

Remind you of anything? Ok, the plot is definitely similar to that of Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 masterpiece Bicycle Thieves. In fact, Weitz seems to adhere to De Sica’s playbook quite strongly, lifting scene ideas from that classic, like a lunch between father and son where the father lays his heart on the table and drinks a little too much. It’s a trap that Weitz runs into: There’s no way that you can make a film so similar to that of De Sica’s classic and come out a total winner.

Demián Bichir of A Better Life

Demián Bichir of A Better Life | Summit

Yet Weitz is a skillful enough storyteller that A Better Life isn’t so much a remake as it is a reinterpretation for a different time and a different culture. While it is never explicitly political, A Better Life displays a humanist tale about the consequences of decades of inconsistent and xenophobic immigration policies. We see the fragile families and the dire economic circumstances they are forced to endure as they are ostracized into their own little corner filled with drugs and imminent danger.

Weitz is a smart filmmaker, and despite the strong screenplay written by Eric Eason and the lush Alexandre Desplat score, he knows that the greatest weapon he has here is his leading man, Demian Bichir.

Bichir has long been a solid leading man in Mexican cinema, yet has only recently crossed over to American screens. In his first leading role in an English language movie, he is sensational. His eyes are channels into Carlos’ soul, and they guide us through this tale. The dignity he brings to the role is nothing short of remarkable. There’s little doubt that Bichir will be headlining more films in the future.

With this film, Weitz downscales remarkably. The entire budget for A Better Life probably doesn’t even match the catering budget for his previous two pictures, The Twilight Saga: New Moon and The Golden Compass. It turns out that Weitz acquits himself well when his scope is scaled modestly, and he doesn’t have to concern himself with all of the technological hullabaloo. Why should he when he can coax performances like the one he gets from Mr. Bichir?

Follow @ChrisWeitz on Twitter.

Zack Mandell is a movie enthusiast, owner of Movie Room Reviews, and reviewer of such films as Star Trek Into Darkness. He writes extensively about the movie industry for Gossip Center, Yahoo, Helium & others.

Zack Mandell has written posts on Reel Life With Jane.


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17 comments

  1. I just finally watched this yesterday! I was enormously moved by the film, and I have become a huge fan of Demian Bichir. I love the contrast between this character and the one he plays on Weeds. It really shows his range, but in this film, he’s absolutely heartbreaking.

  2. I wonder why no one has made a film about the plight of one of the law abiding families that have been forced into unemployment and poverty by the illegal immigrants being allowed to underbid the legal workers for jobs?  I reckon most of them are not minorities so they don’t deserve any sympathy or compassion.  That wouldn’t make a good box office draw anyway.

  3. It’s definitely worth the watch, Jane! @melanievotaw : Bichir’s range is really on display here. It’s a rare treat these days to see an actor really disappear into a role. @Jane Boursaw : Yeah, I have been wanting to check out the Paradise Lost trilogy as well. I remember the West Memphis 3 from back in the day, but haven’t thought about it much since, until the film “West of Memphis” premiered this year at Sundance. I’m going to try to get my hands on that and review it as soon as humanly possible.

  4. Yeah, definitely worth the watch, Jane. @melanievotaw : Yeah, Bichir is stellar here. It’s all too uncommon these days for an actor to really disappear into a role like this. Glad you liked the film and thanks for reading the article! @Jane Boursaw : oh man, yeah those films would be a bit depressing back to back. I have had my interest in the West Memphis 3 rekindled since that film “West of Memphis” premiered at Sundance this year. I would love to review that as well.

    • Zack – Are you reviewing West of Memphis for your site? If not, we’d love a review of it for Reel Life With Jane. I saw it at the Traverse City Film Festival this summer and have been meaning to write up something and just haven’t gotten to it yet. The whole thing is so fascinating and heartwrenching. Looking forward to seeing what Atom Egoyan does with Devil’s Knot, too. Great cast – can’t wait to see Alessandro Nivola as Terry Hobbs. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0804463/combined

      • @Jane Boursaw Yes, Devil’s Knot is going to be fascinating. Jane, as you know, I’ve become a huge fan of Alessandro Nivola after seeing him on stage in Williamstown this past summer. I still haven’t seen all three of the Paradise Lost documentaries. After seeing the West Memphis 3 at Lincoln Center last year and meeting Damien Echols at the Book Expo earlier this year, I’m not sure I could even get through them all. I’m still floored by how sweet Damien was. I just don’t know how someone comes out of that experience so open. He still has to wear dark glasses because of the damage to his eyes from being deprived of sunlight for so long.

        • @melanievotaw He must be very Zen Buddhist-like or something. I can’t imagine going through something like that and being able to function at all.

        • @Jane Boursaw He is, actually. He studied Reiki while in prison, if I remember correctly, and said it helped him survive. I believe he may have also studied meditation techniques. He looked at me when he autographed my book with such sweetness and no defensiveness. It blew me away. I know there are people who still think the West Memphis 3 are guilty. If Damien is (and I don’t believe it for a minute), he’s a remarkable actor. These experiences have a way of bringing a person to their core, I think. Look at Nelson Mandela.

      • @Jane Boursaw We will probably do a short blurb about it on Movieroom, but not a full review. I see on IMDB that West of Memphis won’t hit US theaters until Christmas Day. I’d absolutely be up for seeing it and sending a review to your site. It would be exclusive to reellifewithjane, of course. :) If there is a way I could see it before then, I could get the review out sooner, of course.

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