All joking and snobbery aside, why do we watch films from other countries? They so often tell stories which are, by their nature, foreign to our experience, and represent lifestyles that exist far outside the context of our day-to-day doings. The assumption is that the broadening of horizons leads to greater cultural awareness, and also a greater global appreciation of cinema as an artform.
Sadly, illegal immigrant drama, A Better Life, doesn’t tick either of those artistic boxes, and it’s rather curious that it has been internationally distributed at all. It tells the two-pronged story of Carlos (Demián Bichir), a hard working gardener, and Luis (José Julián), his teenage son, as they live the uneasy existence which the American Dream has become for Mexican residents in California.
Without citizenship, Carlos toils away at laborious cash-in-hand jobs, dreaming of one day being able to afford the expensive legal procedure that would grant him a visa. A glimmer of hope appears when a workmate decides to up sticks, and puts his van up for sale, offering Carlos the chance to run his own business. At great personal risk, he takes the opportunity.
But this wouldn’t be an ‘issues film’ if things came easily, as on the first day of this new venture, the van is stolen, leaving Carlos penniless and hopeless. To make matters worse, his son is developing a bad case of ‘teenage prat’ syndrome, spurning his father’s diligent attempts at single parent life in favour of cracking wise and eyeing up tattoo-heavy drug dealers.
Bichir is good at looking weary, yet idealistic. Carlos’ shoulders are weighed down by the injustices of the drama, but his desire for something better for him and his son always shines through. However, the film’s pantomimic sense of foreshadowing and tension (throughout, traffic police are treated like nightmarish boogeymen) often undermines its heartfelt central premise of a man and boy united by their tortured circumstances, which recalls Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, without the operatic, moral edge.
In this film, Carlos and Luis ramble around Los Angeles looking for the stolen van, observing the grimy, sweaty metropolis in all of its ‘melting pot’ glory, and that’s with emphasis on the melting. LA’s subculture of illegal immigrant workers, who sit on street corners waiting for menial work, moonlight at seedy clubs, and sleep crammed into small apartments, is frightful. Seeing such a world starts to change Luis’ view of his dad, as he grows to appreciate their life together. Such a revelation, however, cannot last long, as the melodramatic conclusion waits just around the corner.
This is the sort of tepid tragedy, all sentiment and no cojones, that one could previously malign as a TV movie, as it attempts to say nothing new about the issues at hand, and offers up nothing more than a hand wringing sense of guilt and melancholy. It lacks anger, vigour and passion, which is a surprise for a film tackling such a hot potato topic as illegal immigration. Next to films like The Visitor, Fast Food Nation or Sin Nombre, which would engage in discourse, as opposed to merely pilfering from it, A Better Life seems resigned to the way things are.