Film review: A Better Life

A Better Life
Depth of Field, Lime Orchard Productions, Witt/Thomas Productions

STARRING Demián Bichir, José Julián
WRITTEN BY Eric Eason (screenplay), Roger L. Simon (story)
PRODUCED BY Paul Junger Witt, Christian McLaughlin, Chris Weitz, Jami Gertz, Stacey Lubliner

SHOT BY Javier Aguirresarobe
EDITED BY Peter Lambert
MUSIC BY Alexandre Desplat
DISTRIBUTED BY Summit Entertainment

Screened 2011-06-29

LA residents, ever seen those Mexican day laborers who hang around Home Depot? There’s little sense in my even posing that as a question. Ever wondered about the story of one of them? I give you A Better Life, our up-to-date-as-of-five-years-ago Mexican immigrant tale. Curiously written and directed by white guys who employ (legally, I’m sure) an entirely Mexican cast, nobody will say it doesn’t feel authentic (except perhaps the true denizens of the social toilet, and we so rarely hear from them). Screenwriter Eric Eason may be white, but I’ll grant that he appears, according to his CV, to be genuinely tapped into the troubles of the tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to be free. I got no beef with Mr. Eason. Mr. Weitz isn’t so bad himself, as I recall enjoying About a Boy just fine. I check his resume right now and see that his last project was… the second Twilight film?! Nobody’s perfect.

So we’ve got Carlos Galindo, landscaping father struggling to earn enough money to send his 15 year old son to a school which is more than a holding pen for up-and-coming gangsters. There is little hope until his friend and co-worker offers to sell Carlos his truck, thusly giving Carlos the chance to earn more than minimum wage and become a business owner instead of streetwalker. Carlos takes a huge risk and buys it, then rather foolishly loses this truck to the scampish Santiago within the first few hours of his Gran Apertura. From here he and his son endeavor on a kind of Bike Thieves quest to track down Santiago and the truck, and everything is on the line. This story had the potential to be overly sentimental, woefully over/underacted, and lamely concluded… but I am happy to report that Better Life does not suck.

I always did wonder why I saw a million – a million – cheap old pickup trucks, three Mexicans in baseball caps piled into the front seats, and the backs filled to capacity with rusty old landscaping equipment. I will wonder no more. I’m very glad I lived in Los Angeles for some years or else this film would’ve felt quite foreign, and I would’ve had to assume its accuracy. Seems close enough, however, as such things go. And it wasn’t total sentimental pablum like I expected! (not TOTAL, at least) The sentiment was a minor hindrance… combined with the functionally adequate artistry and limited polemical story, the film cannot rise above a B-grade for passionate cinephiles. You can see it a mile away. Here’s something that struck me: the film moved forward without slackening for about 75 minutes, and during the first real scene of quiet, when a very emotional communication is made from father to son, the viewers in the packed theater used this moment to shift in their seats, tear open wrappers, cough, exhale loudly, and most of the emotive dialogue was glazed over. This could mean two things: 1) such sentiment has been seen so many times that it’s simply unimportant, or 2) the film had been successful in its tension and the viewers needed an opportunity to relax. It’s probably a good thing.

Apparently the immigrant population is now large enough that mainstream white viewers will begin to experience that narrative (though it may only be understood by residents of CA/NM/AZ/TX). I’d just like to know: how bad is life in working class Mexico? I’ve just never seen it before. Is it worth destroying one’s momentum by relocating to a foreign land and placing oneself in considerable danger at the bottom of the food chain? In a place where one misstep can literally lead to ruin? Is Mexico really so awful? I mean, I just don’t know. Poverty is a terminal illness, devastating, tragic, horrific, hopeless. Were you worse off before? I have no choice but to assume that one is worse off, or else there would be no reason for flight. This explains the gentrification, the segregation, the distinctly separate Mexican community in the Southern US – there for one another. An inevitability. But if the bottom-of-the-American-barrel is a step up, Mexico must be a freaking mess.

written by David Ashley