DIRECTED BY CHRIS WEITZ
STARRING: DEMIAN BICHIR, JOSE JULIAN, CARLOS LINARES, JOAQUIN COSIO, DOLORES HEREDIA, CHELSEA RENDON, BOBBY SOTO with EDDIE ‘PIOLIN’ SOTELO and NANCY LENEHAN
Carlos Galindo (Demian Bichir) climbs trees. Not the branched-out ones with footholds aplenty. He climbs straight-shooters like the Palm and the Coconut, where one would need fasteners and belts and boots for better grip. Blasco Martinez (Joaquin Cosio), Carlos’ boss and, for all practical purposes, a well-wisher, provides for the equipment. On one such climb routine, Mrs. Donnelly (Nancy Lenehan) down below asks Blasco if the man is insured. Blasco is immediate to dust it off, like it’s ridiculous to even think he isn’t. But we know. Carlos (along with Blasco) is one of the thousands of illegal immigrants living in Los Angeles, having driven in from Mexico, doing the odd chore to keep the fire burning.
In Carlos and Blasco we have two different kinds of immigrants. Blasco, who’s obviously been around for longer, has a ‘hit and quit’ sort of adequacy about him. He’s the kind of guy who’s got his legs on either side of the fence all the time. Carlos, on the other hand, has completely uprooted himself and replanted in more fertile soil as he sees it. He might not have authentication in America, but he’s got even lesser in Mexico. He’s like Miguel Santos in ‘Sugar’ (made by Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden) in his preference to get lost in a sea of uncertainty than to stand stagnant back home. He doesn’t have deed, he doesn’t have document. But he has a son in America for whom he wants to make life better.
In his son Luis (Jose Julian), we have a third kind of immigrant – the first generation citizen. We see him watching ‘Cribs’ on TV in his introduction sequence. It isn’t representative of his desires and longings as one might be quick to assume. It’s representative of who he is. About fourteen years old as he looks to be, Luis is friends with Facundo (Bobby Soto) and has a girlfriend in Ruthie (Chelsea Rendon) who we come to meet in a sturdy encounter with a schoolyard bully. Ruthie does half the work by telling him about her family as Luis brings him down with giant-killing aggression. Detaining him, a Policeman asks him to take his shirt off, to check in which gang’s direction his tattoos seem to point. But the boy is unmarked as he claims he is – a claim which, as we know, is only true for the surface.
Carlos buys Blasco’s business getting help from his sister Anita (Dolores Heredia), a citizen by marriage and hence in a much better position. Closer to his dream than he was ever before, he goes for a spin and a show of heart where he picks Santiago (Carlos Linares) to assist him on his day’s work. He teaches him things about work in the garden and puts his boots on, ready to climb a tree, to show him how it’s done. At the top, we see him notice something we’re sure he wouldn’t have appreciated before – the view. He has finally become Blasco with a Carlos of his own, he thinks. Except that he, with his Rousseau-like faith in people, fails to see that no one can be quite like Carlos. Definitely not Santiago.
‘A Better Life’ is written by Eric Eason, based on a story by Roger L. Simon. It is directed by Chris Weitz, a Matthew Vaughn equivalent with his film choices. We know him from the exceptionally good-natured ‘About a Boy’, his adaptation of Philip Pullman’s ‘the Golden Compass’ and the even less forgivable ‘New Moon’, the second installment of ‘the Twilight Saga.’ This film, for him, is of a fourth kind and a debut of sorts. Its premise is immediately relatable to De Sica’s neorealist masterpiece ‘the Bicycle Thieves,’ which, I thought, the film neither shies away from, nor cashes in on. Eason (a filmmaker himself known for his insightful take on Latino communities in America and elsewhere) and Weitz weave it intricately into the Mexican underbelly of LA that the story and setting become an inseparable whole. They, along with Alexandre Desplat’s (‘the King’s Speech’, ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’) music score and its exceptional photography (Javier Aguirresarobe) render the film perfectly organic.
Demian Bichir plays Carlos, a central role that’s only half the weight with Jose Julian as Luis strong on the counter-balance. They’re Father and Son in a natural conflict. Bichir is a heavyweight in Mexican cinema as I came to know. He has previously played Castro in Soderbergh’s ‘Che’ – he looks uncannily like him. I saw a win-win in casting Bichir to play Carlos, a father and a human being with unquestionable morality that falls short in only the fact that he’s an illegal immigrant, driven by despair. Bichir, who is no doubt a very important actor, empowers Carlos with a swagger and his piercing eyes, features that accentuate Carlos’ strength which helps him keep his head above the water. Also to his advantage is the fact that in spite of Bichir’s prevalence in Mexico, he is, undoubtedly again, less-known to audiences, worldwide, which is crucial, at least to a film as this, where it’s important for the viewer to stay close to character and not get carried away with excitement/confusion associated with the actor essaying the role. Brad Pitt needed to go gray to make ‘Babel’ believable, but Bichir has no such necessity. See what I mean?
But in spite of Bichir’s solid performance in all its glory, I was drawn more towards Luis and a convincing portrayal by Jose Julian. The boy looks fresh in high school and dangerously treading the thin line of well-being that splits better from worse. He’s a sort of product of negligence, but with a mind of his own and a maturity to weigh things, an effect of being raised by the unshakeable Carlos. He’s a father’s pride; he’s what Allison from ‘Havoc’ should have been to keep all trouble outside. He might not be what his father wants him to be and he most definitely doesn’t want to end up like him, but he has a moral obligation and an inherent love which he embraces as seen in his efforts to help the man. He sticks to him, in short, which Carlos, with wild-eyed pride, appreciates. They’re Father and Son, like I said.
‘A Better Life’ is a very important film. For 2011; for the generations to come. It’s a course on values and the importance of commitment, of trust and honour in a time that rejoices in a lack thereof. It, however, suffers from the problem and tries to give a remedy for harbouring such ambition – Carlos might not be a great role-model as a teacher, but in Luis, we have a very relatable student. His is an interpretation of his Father’s steadfastness and not a total reenactment which he decidedly doesn’t believe in. The champion element is his decision to not yield to peer pressure, which, as demonstrated by Carlos throughout the entire movie, is a fight against the odds. It’s delightful to watch an adolescent make that decision without the compulsion of suffering. Unlike ‘Havoc.’ Unlike ‘Thirteen.’
Demian Bichir is the grease-coat on this year’s Oscars with his ‘Best Actor’ nomination – a break from a haul of exaggerated performances, one of the most defining roles of the year. It would be interesting to see if he wins it in a dark-horse sweep. What’s sad though is that this is the only nomination. None for Eric Eason. None for Jose Julian, one of the best young performances I’ve seen in recent times. None for Cinematography or Music Score. Unfair. But then, the Awards are but a link between obligations and precedence where justice for all can’t be expected, let alone be provided. Yet again, we’d have to console ourselves with the thought that the best reward for a film is to watch it. And this is me saying you should.