Although “A Better Life” seems a little didactic at times, it also offers a certain warmth while remaining firmly grounded in sometimes harsh reality. Latino landscaper and illegal immigrant Carlos (Damien Bichir, who played alongside Diane Kruger in one of my favorite crime shows, “The Bridge”) only wants a ‘better life’ for his teenaged son Luis (José Julián,) but the kid gives his long-suffering dad nothing but lip and gets cozy with his gangster friends.
Carlos borrows some money from his much more affluent sister (Dolores Heredita) against his own hardscrabble ethics and buys a truck to help with his job. But an initially trustworthy-seeming employee steals the truck and sends Carlos and Luis on an odyssey to find the perpetrator and win back Carlos’ precious commodity.
It’s hard not to love Carlos, but I’ll be damned if his yo-yo-yo ungrateful little gangsta wannabe son didn’t make me want to bitch-slap him. “Go mow some lawns,” the son drawls lazily when his dad tries to straighten him out. It’s not hard to figure out that the father and son will bond and the kid will reassess some values, and by the end you hold up some hope for Luis’ future even if you still don’t exactly, well, like him.
“A Better Life” suggests some holes in the illegal immigration system in a not-always-so-subtle but still satisfactory way. If there’s one thing I can commend this film for, it’s for not handling the subject matter with a fairy tale varnish. It is, indeed, hard to be a minority in the United States when your American-born citizens are expecting you to prove your unworthiness to the Land of the Free any moment.
It is even harder to be an otherwise law-abiding illegal who is afraid of being pulled over for a minor traffic infraction and the police finding you out and tossing you back where you came from, at the expense of your family unit. The ending of “A Better Life” is a little abrupt but still manages to offer some hope for the characters while at the same time possessing a kind of tough-love realness.
Because while painting the conclusion of a social drama rose-colored is irresponsible, offering no leeway in the matter of hope can also at times rob a story of its reality. People find ways to deal, sometimes constructive, sometimes irresponsible, but burdening the film with heart-crushing gloominess doesn’t always make it more effective. And sometimes, as with Alan Clarke’s skinhead drama “Made in Britain,” cynical nihilism is the way to go.
But I hold out hope for Carlos that even if he doesn’t find the ‘better life’ he’s looking for, he will be able to roll with the punches life offers up. Everyone wants more than they have, but only a few people, like Carlos, have the courage to go for their dream. I hope that by watching this movie people will find themselves both entertained and more sympathetic to the immigrant’s plight in America.