Wednesday, February 29, 2012

A Better Life

If ever there was a performance deserving of accolades plugged into a movie that in spite of its good intentions doesn't quite rise to the level for which it yearns, it's Oscar nominee Demián Bichir's expressive and humane work in Chris Weitz's drama "A Better Life." Bichir is Carlos, an illegal alien up from south of the border, uneducated, determined to provide for his young son Luis (José Julián) and who in the very first moments of the movie we realize sleeps beneath a thin blanket on the living room sofa all so Luis can have the tiny home's lone bedroom. This is characterization to the highest degree.


He works as a gardener's assistant, landscaping expansive and scenic California yards. His boss Blasco (Joaquín Cosio) explains he plans to sell his truck and return home to Mexico, thus he offers to sell the vehicle to Carlos as an opportunity to continue the business and perhaps make an even - ah? - better life for himself. After acquiring the necessary money from his kindly sister (Dolores Heredia) he does indeed purchase the truck and, in turn, all the tools and all the landscaping jobs.

The film is at its best in these early scenes, melding a relaxed pace with a distinct tension as we see Carlos go about his endless daily routine with an amazing and unforced dignity even as he knows at any second the little that he has could all so easily slip away. And that's why he is at first hesitant to buy the truck. No license, no papers, what if something happens? Of course, it's a chance that must be taken, and the warm pride that encapsulates his face when he pulls up at his son's school with a gift is a moment of subdued marvelousness. Alas, the truck is not merely a symbol of "the American dream", it is also a plot device and, thus, within that very first day of purchase, as drama dictates, it is stolen.

There is quite a bit of Italian neo-realism at work here with less-than-subtle nods to the famed "Bicyle Thief", a father and son on a crusade to track down that which rightfully belongs to them, traversing their way from the Latino neighborhoods they inhabit to the frightful den of, yes, South Central and back again. Credit must go to screenwriter Eric Eason for refusing to use this set-up as an opportunity to preach politically, eschewing long-winded diatribes on America's immigration policy and, even more thankfully, not taking the obvious route for which he seems to be angling throughout in having young Luis cave in to the frightful gang culture that forever surrounds him.


By not scaling these heights "A Better Life" never gets out of control, but even so there still must be scenes of Carlos and Luis scaling barbed-wire fences, swelling music to occasionally choose our emotions for us and Candy Cane lines such as: "Good for you." "No, good for us." (Head in hands.) But despite those rigid mechanics, Bichir invests you so much in his understandable desperation that he truly transforms into one of those cinematic characters for whom, as they say, you root. He's not asking anyone to root for him, mind you, and his rock solid principles are not something gifted to him from a noble mountain top, they are a teaching tool for his son.

While the end will likely leave a certain sort of viewer up in arms and calling for heads, he/she will likely miss how the film has built to it by character and, thereby, eclipsing all - ah? - pesky borders and recalling the film's opening and how Carlos gave Luis their home's lone room. The child comes first. It brings to mind a certain word...universal.

11 comments:

Colin said...

loved it, and loved Bichir more. I'm not saying he got robbed, but I thought it was the best male perf. of 2011

Colin @ picknmix

Sam Fragoso said...

One of the few performances nominated that I missed. Sounds like a touching film. Though, I may want to see Bicycle Thief

Nick Prigge said...

Colin: I wouldn't say Bichir got robbed either. That truly was a case of the ancient "It's Just An Honor To Be Nominated" thing. If he hadn't been, I might not have watched. I'm glad I did.

Sam: If you see Bicycle Thief first, you will definitely see the parallels. Even so, Bichir stands out from whatever homage there is.

Candice Frederick said...

i didn't love this movie either, as it lagged at it times and didn't have the puch i wanted it to have at times. but bechir was quite good in it

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

What Candice says, I mean like COMPLETELY what she says.

But, I like to talk so, I'll keep writing. For example, the boy playing his son (and I don't mean to get hyperbolic) did some of the worst acting of 2011 for me, and the film for all its good intentions is a bit smarmy at times. But, Bichir is good (as is the woman playing his sister).

Nick Prigge said...

Totally agreed. It could have been tougher. Not necessarily politically, but emotionally.

And the boy kind of....what? Slipped and slid with his natural state? Rambunctious to bad boy to doting son and then back around.

Castor said...

Bichir gives a superb performance and the movie is quite good but I felt there a little bit missing from the film through the hump. Maybe it's the actor playing the boy, who couldn't get the job done. Not quite sure...

Nick Prigge said...

I would say it's because the dramatic devices of the film just don't feel natural enough. That's where it stepped most wrong for me.

alleyesonscreen.com said...

I really want to see this movie now. It looks so good! Nice review, Nick. Do you think Bichir should have been nominated instead of say, Fassbender (in Shame)?

Nick Prigge said...

I would say that yes, Bichir should have been nominated over Fassbender. Granted, Bichir is warm and Fassbender is cold but Bichir truly does make the movie what it is.

Though, for the record, I would have nominated Michael Shannon for Take Shelter over both of them.

Vancetastic said...

I seem to like this movie more than many of the commenters. It really touched me. And I actually loved the ending, the one sure to be controversial in some parts. (Red states, for example.)