Carlos (Demián Bichir) has been in the United States illegally for many, many years, making a living as a landscaper at rich homes in the Los Angeles area. His teenage son Luis (José Julián) is a typical American teenager, embarrassed by his living situation, embarrassed by his gardener dad, and coming on the age where he wants to lash out and rebel. Of course, for a Latino kid in East L.A., the most alluring temptation comes from joining a gang.
As Carlos sees his emotionally distant son slipping away, he gets an opportunity to buy his business partner’s fully loaded landscaping truck. Sure, it costs a chunk of money that he doesn’t really have, but if he can turn it into a successful business, he can move him and his son out of their hellhole neighborhood and give Luis a better life. But just as Carlos finds himself feeling optimistic with his new truck, the truck is stolen, along with his livelihood and all of his savings. A Better Life turn s into a desperate quest through the underground community of illegal immigrants to find the truck before all traces of it disappear.
The plot of A Better Life is straightforward storytelling. Director Chris Weitz, known more for his work on splashy fare like American Pie and The Twilight Saga: New Moon, delves into the more sensitive side that he displayed with the wonderful About A Boy. Except, in this case, Weitz has a personal investment, as it turns out that he himself is one-quarter Mexican. Shining an intimate, personal light on the world of illegal Mexican workers in the U.S. is as enlightening as it is uncomfortable.
What makes A Better Life so compelling though is simply the acting of Demián Bichir as Carlos. I didn’t recognize him at first, but his soft voice sounded so familiar. I didn’t realize until afterwards that he is perhaps best known in the U.S. for his role on the TV show Weeds as Esteban, the slick Tijuana drug lord and mayoral candidate. He couldn’t be more different than than that character. He is quiet, haunting, and heartbreaking. He treats everyone with dignity and respect, even if he doesn’t receive it himself, as he longingly looks at the “regular” world around him like an outsider. And I swear, he has a scene towards the end of the film that had me absolutely, and unexpectedly ugly-crying. He knocks this role out of the ballpark with his restrained and heart-tugging performance. Though his character is the type that is invisible in mainstream American society, I sure hope that Bichir as an actor gets the recognition and accolades he deserves for his work in this film.