July 10, 2011

MOVIES: A Better Life (Chris Weitz, 2011)

A Better Life is sort of a Los Angeles take on the classic Italian film Bicycle Thieves. The central character is Carlos (Demian Bichir), an illegal immigrant who works as a gardener in Los Angeles; he lives with his 14-year-old son, Luis (Jose Julian, making his acting debut), who is solidly in the middle of his sullen years.

Carlos's boss is ready to retire, and wants to sell his truck and tools to Carlos so that he can take over the business. Carlos borrows money from his sister; on his first day as an independent businessman, the truck and tools are stolen. That sends Carlos and Luis on a trek through Los Angeles, desperately searching for the truck, which will make the difference between ruin and a shot at financial advancement.

We don't very often see movies set in cities in which the main characters rely on public transit to get around, and this movie does a marvelous job of showing just how large the city is, and how long it takes to get around it on the bus.

Among other things, this is a movie about honor and the desire to do the right thing; Carlos and Luis have very different ideas about how to handle certain situations, and one of the most interesting things in the middle section of the movie is watching how they negotiate difficult ethical moments. The story's got a few too many cliches -- we know that Carlos and Luis will learn to respect one another and heal their frayed relationship as they go about their search -- but the performances are good enough to keep the movie entertaining.

Bichir, a Mexican movie star best known here for a supporting role on Weeds, is excellent. It's a quiet, understated performance, and Bichir never overplays a moment or pushes for dramatic effect. Julian is a bit less steady, and his inexperience occasionally shows, but he does nice work showing Luis's increasing understanding of and respect for his father.

No comments: