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A Better Life Review

Adam Lowes finds the summer’s unsung cinematic hero

Published on July 27th 2011.

A Better Life Review

SET in the impoverished, predominantly Hispanic region of East LA, A Better Life tells the story of a widowed illegal immigrant father named Carlos and his struggles with keeping his impressionable teenage son Luis away from Latino gang culture and (as the titles suggests) provide him with a stable upbringing and the chance to potentially make something of himself in the future.

Borrowing money from his sister to purchase a truck and tools with which he can start his own landscape gardening business and make a decent living for a change, Carlos also see’s the opportunity as a means of getting one step closer to legitimacy, and hiring an immigration lawyer to help him gain US citizenship. Things go disastrously wrong however when said truck is stolen, forcing Carlos (with Luis in tow) to set off on a journey to retrieve it, which also help bring father and son together for the first time in a long while.

It also manages to capture an unglamorous, yet captivating look at a part of LA that is mostly unseen on the big screen, particularly in this kind of family-friendly film.

While A Better Life may be a familiar rites-of-passage tale, it’s told with tons of heart and features some committed and heart-felt performances. It also manages to capture an unglamorous, yet captivating look at a part of LA that is mostly unseen on the big screen, particularly in this kind of family-friendly film. Mexican workers are captured at dawn, hustling for back-breaking labour jobs, and dilapidated, almost uninhabited neighbourhoods are glimpsed at as the duo attempt to track down the thief. It’s one of the film’s greatest strengths that the character’s plights are never glossed over in an attempt to pander to a mainstream audience yet, thankfully, it never hammers the viewer over the head with its polemic either.

As Carlos, Demian Bichir (a veteran Mexican TV actor, and perhaps familiar to fans of US series, Weeds) brings a quiet dignity to the part, and is eminently watchable as we follow his daily struggles and sacrifices, all the while as he maintains an emotional resilience to keep his son on the straight and narrow. Playing Luis, newcomer José Julián gives a believable and naturalistic performance in a role which clearly marks him as a young actor to watch.

Director Chris Weitz has scaled back from his previous fantasy epics and has made an intimate and surprisingly touching tale. Produced by Summit, the studio built on the successful Twilight franchise (of which the second in the series was lensed by Weitz himself) he has crafted a film which may appeal to a similar crowd who indulge their love and Edward and Bella, yet the results here are far from the cloying and corny tone found in those films.

Aided by an elegant score from the great French composer, Alexandre Desplat, A Better Life is Weitz’s most heartfelt and poignant film since About A Boy, and he should be praised for making a thoroughly accessible film from a challenging subject matter, which deserves to be seen by the widest audience possible.

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