Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Movie – A Better Life (2011)

When the Oscar nominations for Best Actor were announced, Demian Bichir’s name was among them.  The largest initial reaction to this was “Who?”  Up until then, he was probably best known in America for a recurring role on the TV show Weeds.  The Academy nominated him for his work in the film A Better Life.  It’s the story of a father and son living a tough life in the Los Angeles area.  Bichir does give a fine performance; a quiet, dignified one, in fact.  I’m a little surprised he got nominated because it is usually the flashier roles that get the attention of Oscar voters.  This is a decent film, although it may anger some people.  I will explain.

Bichir plays Carlos Galindo, a man who works seven days a week in and around Los Angeles keeping rich people’s gardens and trees looking good.  He gets picked up first thing in the morning by another man who owns the truck and tools they use and then he works until the sun goes down.  When he gets home he sleeps on the couch, so that his son can have the one bedroom.  He is doing all of this so his son can have a better life than he does.  You may think all this toil is the biggest problem in Carlos’ life, but it’s not.  His biggest problem is that he is in the country illegally.

He came to the U.S. almost twenty years ago.  A few years later he had a son, who is an American citizen since he was born in the U.S.  The mother has been out of the picture for a long time.  The son Luis, played by Jose Julian, is now in his mid teens and is typical of boys of that age.  He loves his father, but he doesn’t really appreciate him, and doesn’t want to be around him too much.  There are Latino gangs in the neighborhood and Carlos’ biggest fear is that his son will join one of them.

When Carlos first came to the U.S. he would hang out in a certain location with a lot of other men, all looking for day laborer jobs.  Other people would come by and select men to take with them, depending on how much help they needed.  Carlos managed to eventually catch on with the man he is working for now and he has had more stable work for years.  That man wants to get out of the business, though, and he wants Carlos to buy his truck and tools from him.  Carlos doesn’t have that kind of cash.  The man keeps threatening that it would be too bad for Carlos to lose all that work and all the clients that the man has lined up.  It’s a game of chicken that goes on until the man finally doesn’t show up one morning and Carlos finds himself back where he was many years ago, waiting with dozens of other men just like him hoping someone will pick them for work.

One day of that is enough.  Carlos calls his sister for help.  She also entered the U.S. illegally, stayed with Carlos for a while, and eventually married an American, so she is safe.  She has some money that she gives Carlos without her husband knowing about it.  Carlos will need to pay her back as soon as he can so the husband does not find out.  Combined with money Carlos has been able to save, he has enough to buy the truck and tools.  Now that he will be his own boss, he will be making much more money.  Once he pays his sister back he will be able to move to a safer place for him and his son to live.  Things are starting to look up.

Carlos drives back to the location with all the men and specifically chooses the one who shared his food with him the day before.  They head off to the first of the houses that needs work.  Among the jobs Carlos has is climbing palm trees to trim them.  (Demian Bichir did all his own climbing).  He shows the other man how to put on the safety belt and boots, then how to climb the tree.  Before he starts he empties his pockets onto the ground.  Among the items he drops are his keys.  He climbs the tree then looks down – and finds the man is gone.  Carlos looks around and sees the man running for Carlos’ truck.  He tries to get down the tree, but he is too late and the man gets away with his truck.  He can’t report the theft because he is an illegal alien.  His entire life, as well as his son’s and his sister’s, are ruined if he cannot get that truck back.  The son finds out what happened.  He insists on joining his father the next day to look for the truck.

If this situation sounds familiar, it’s because it is similar to the premise of The Bicycle Thief (1948) where a man and his son search for a stolen bicycle because the father has to have it to be able to work.  In the case of the film A Better Life there is added plot about the father and son coming a little closer together again, plus we get to see events that occur after the father attempts to get his truck and tools back.

In case you are wondering, this is an English language film, although Spanish is liberally sprinkled throughout the dialogue.  I did have to turn the subtitles on in places because of some of the heavier accents when people were speaking English.  Most of the Spanish is subtitled into English, but not all.  Director Chris Weitz (About a Boy) apparently assumed viewers knew some basic Spanish words.

The issue in this film that will probably push some people’s buttons is the one about illegal immigration.  The film is not preachy.  There are no long speeches on how unfair it is that Carlos can never apply for a real, stable job, or that he cannot go to the police when he is wronged.  It’s just a part of this man’s life that he has to live with.  The fact that the story in the film does show you things from the perspective of an illegal alien, though, is probably still enough to infuriate some hardliners that might watch the movie.

For non-Americans – the issue of illegal immigrants coming into the U.S., especially from Mexico, has become more polarizing in recent years.  Some people want to “round them all up and ship them back where they came from”, while others want to allow them to be able to become official citizens with no penalties.  Most Americans fall somewhere in between these two extremes, but it doesn’t mean they don’t have strong feelings about it. 

This film identifies with one such illegal alien, showing he is like pretty much every other parent with a child.  He wants to protect his son and he will do most anything to see that his son gets a better life than he himself had.  If you are a hardliner on getting rid of them all, then this film will probably not change your mind.  If you are one of the people in the middle, this movie may give you a couple of things to think about after it is done.  In either case, I recommend you give this film a try.

Chip’s Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

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