Seeking a Better Life

Now that the political season is upon us, immigration is once more a hot-button issue. Liberals bemoan the need for reform while conservatives demand that “illegal aliens” be rounded up . These polemics often have an abstract quality with little or no connection to reality. Pundits glibly cite figures of the number of undocumented workers in the U.S. and how many were deported last year. Yet we forget that these are real people, with real fears, regrets, and dreams.

Few recent films have put this in perspective like A Better Life. Released in late 2011 with no fanfare, this low-budget production seemed destined for video on demand. Directed by Chris Weitz, best known for the teenage raunch-fest American Pie, it stars Mexican actor Demian Bichir, whose last role was a cameo as Fidel Castro in Steven Soderburgh’s soggy biopic Che. But appearances can be deceiving.

Bichir plays Carlos Galindo, a Mexican day laborer in contemporary Los Angeles. He lives alone with his 14 year old son Luis and spends his days trimming the palm trees of wealthy Anglos. His American Dream is a dead end; despite his back-breaking labor, Carlos barely makes enough to get by while his son drifts into gang life. Yet Carlos wants more. When his boss offers to sell him his truck, Carlos sees a chance and borrows money from his sister. But his success is short-lived when his only employee steals his truck.

Carlos and his surly son forge a tenuous bond in tracking down the thief in the barrio and recovering the truck from a junkyard. So far so good, and the big-budget Hollywood remake of this film would have them live happily ever after. But no sooner is Carlos driving the truck away than he’s stopped by a policeman and arrested. With neither a driver’s license nor a green card, he soon finds himself in prison awaiting deportation.

In Che, the rugged Bichir’s resemblance to the iconic Cuban revolutionary was remarkable. Here, he plays the humble Galindo with a quiet intensity. His craggy features show the dogged strength of a man who’s been beaten down by life but hasn’t lost sight of his dreams. His attempt to start his own business is doomed from the start and his failure seems inevitable. Yet we hope that he won’t give up.

Having gained respect for his father, Luis goes to live with his aunt. Four months later, we see Carlos crossing back over the border, his dream still alive. Not exactly a happy ending, though somehow a believable one. Weitz and screenwriter Eric Eason capture the rhythm of immigrant life with subtle, nuanced tones. Two gringos...seriously? My stereotype alarm was on a hairtrigger but never went off. Much of the movie is in Spanish, with English subtitles, and the cast is remarkable---not just Bichir but José Julian, who plays his son. Minor roles such as Santiago, the truck thief, and Luis’ tough girlfriend Ruthie are complex and surprising, more like real people than characters in a movie. Don’t miss A Better Life.

Eric Garcia