A-Better-Life-Movie-PosterIs this film available for rent on Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, and Amazon Prime? A Better Life is not available for rent through Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, or Amazon Prime. It is currently available for rent only through DVD/Blu-ray.

Starring: Demian Bichir, Jose Julian, Carlos Linares, Eddie “Piolin” Sotelo, Joaquin Cosio, Nancy Lenehan, Gabriel Chavarria, Bobby Soto, Chelsea Rendon, Kimberly Morales, Lizbeth Leon

Directed by: Chris Weitz

Written By: Eric Eason (story by Roger L. Simon)

Its not that the city of Los Angeles is somehow unique in its ethnic or socioeconomic makeup that so many movies have been made about its citizens. It is simply because those who make movies tend to live in L.A. and have lived there long enough to make observations and opinions about the various groups who live in the City of Angels. Steve Martin’s 1991 whimsical tale about Los Angeles, L.A. Story, presented a decidedly white, upper class (basically Steve Martin’s) interpretation of L.A. In the same year, we got to see a starkly contrasting view of life on the “other side of the tracks” in John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood, an eye-opening film about the dangerous lives of black youth living in Compton. Other films have also shined a spotlight on L.A. – Crash, Grand Canyon, and The Player to name a few.

However, since 1983’s El Norte, few films have dealt with L.A.’s substantially large undocumented community of Hispanics. Shot in the city’s largely Hispanic East Side and featuring a cast that is virtually all Hispanic, A Better Life shines a spotlight on the struggles of being an undocumented Hispanic in post-9/11 America. It is the story of Carlos (Demian Bechir, who played Fidel Castro in Steven Soderbergh’s Che), an undocumented immigrant from Mexico who performs gardening services for Los Angeles’ well-to-do, and his teenage son Luis (Jose Julian). Carlos’ friend offers to sell his gardening truck along with its tools to Carlos so that Carlos may continue to make a living. Although he does not have a driver’s license, Carlos takes a loan from his sister and buys the truck. However, Carlos’ enjoyment of his new purchase is short-lived as it becomes stolen soon after he buys it. Desperate to reclaim it, Carlos and his son explore the multicultural environments of Los Angeles in search of their truck.

If you are a film history buff, you may immediately recognize the plotline in A Better Life as being similar to Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 masterpiece, The Bicycle Thief. Both films deal with a financially struggling father who desperately needs the bicycle/truck in order to work and support his family. The Bicycle Thief uses its plot as a device to show us post-World War II life in Italy. A Better Life uses Carlos’ story to showcase the precarious existence undocumented Hispanics lead when they come to this country. It is always an uphill battle for a filmmaker to present a social or political lesson to general audiences who only want to be entertained. Although documentaries serve as the most obvious way of providing these lessons, far fewer people watch documentaries and those who do tend to already agree with whatever message the documentary intends to convey. A better approach is what director Chris Weitz (American Pie, Antz, Twilight: New Moon, About a Boy) does here and what Oliver Stone has very effectively done with his movies: give the audience a story to impart the filmmaker’s message.

Americans, especially those in the Western states, have strong opinions about undocumented immigrants from Mexico and whether they hurt or help the U.S. economy. There are strong arguments that these immigrants are indeed helping our economy. It does not take a rocket scientist to see this when $25 billion in taxes are paid by these immigrants, but very few of them use this country’s tax-funded social services. However, regardless of whether or not you think undocumented immigrants belong in this country, no one can deny that these people come to this country because they believe whole-heartedly that they can obtain a better life in America. They come here and perform the jobs that no one else will do (or at least not for the pittance that immigrants get paid to do them). They work hard and they scrape and scrounge every penny they can to support their families and hope that some day they will rise out of their current situations. At the same time, especially in a place like Los Angeles where its so easy to avoid seeing the types of people you don’t want to see, the plight of undocumented immigrants goes largely unnoticed. We don’t want to know how our food gets to our table, whether the nanny we employ to take care of our kids is undocumented, or whether the gardener who comes to mow our lawns has health insurance in case he gets injured on the job.

The story of Carlos is the story of countless undocumented immigrants who live in L.A. Up until I saw A Better Life, I had never seen Damian Beshir. A huge movie star in Mexico, Beshir’s American work has only been seen by a few (Steven Soderbergh’s Che and a recurring role on the TV show Weeds). Here, Beshir’s Carlos does not say much at all during the opening sequence of the film, but he makes an immediate connection with the audience. His daily life consists of a dawn-to-dusk ordeal of non-stop work. By the time he gets home, he is too exhausted to spend any time with his son Luis. However, everything he does, every ounce of effort he puts forth, is for his son. He may not be able to articulate his love for Luis, but it clearly exists and it is evident in the simple fact that he chooses to sleep on the couch while giving the bed to his son and the joy he has in picking out a present for his son. With his weary eyes and personable charisma, Beshir inhabits his role so completely that you spend most of the movie seeing him as a real undocumented immigrant who just happened to be hired to act in a movie.

Chris Weitz’s portrayal of Los Angeles is a true portrait of the city. It wisely avoids the touristy version of the city where you see the Hollywood sign, beautiful Beverly Hills mansions, and the beach. The L.A. you see is an uncompromising, harsh environment in which people struggle to keep their heads just above water, but where they help each other out when they can and with the very limited resources that they have. There is a beautiful and memorable scene in the film where Carlos is riding to work and he watches a diverse Los Angeles population go by him. Later in the film, he takes Luis to a Mexican rodeo that will amaze you that such a place exists right in Los Angeles.

A Better Life is an emotional film, but its one that takes a few stumbles in an effort to be sentimental. The film relies too much on clichés and stereotypes to produce this effect and it beats you over the head with it. For example, we have already seen various portrayals of Latino gang culture and I would have preferred to have seen Luis deal with a different problem than the pressure of joining a gang. Even the idea of making Luis into a rebellious teenager (despite it creating narrative conflict) and the father-son lectures are clichéd and overused. Lending to this problem is the film’s processed look. Although the director took pains to hire an unknown cast, A Better Life continues to feel like Hollywood’s notion of Carlos’ world. In contrast, De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief felt so authentic that it was almost as if you were watching a documentary. This film needed to look less polished and to not have resolved its story in so tidy a manner. Like its Italian predecessor, A Better Life should have adopted a more neorealist style. All in all, however, the film remains one that is worth seeing for its beautifully simple story and great performance from Damian Beshir.