Oscar season is many months away but, hopefully, nominators and voters will remember Mexican actor Demian Bichir because he delivers a powerhouse performance in this poignant father/son drama, set in East Los Angeles.
Carlos Galindo (Demian Bichir) is a hard-working single father. He’s an illegal Mexican immigrant but his sullen 14 year-old son Luis (Jose Julien) was born in the United States and is, therefore, entitled to citizenship. Although he earns barely a subsistence salary as part of a landscaping crew, when Carlos’s boss offers to sell him his battered old truck, it seems like a key to the door of opportunity.
“You’re not just buying a truck,” his buddy says. “You’re buying the American Dream.”
Being undocumented, Carlos cannot get a driver’s license so he’s not only law-abiding but extra careful because the fear of arrest and deportation hovers over everyone in his Hispanic community. But when a day laborer steals the treasured truck when he’s trimming the fronds on a tall palm tree, Carlos has no choice but to set off in pursuit. With Luis at his side, they struggle overcome the myriad of obstacles thrown in their path and learn far more about each other in their quest to retrieve what is rightfully theirs.
Written by Eric Eason (“Manito”) from a story by Roger L. Simon, it’s sensitively directed by Chris Weitz (“Twiight: New Moon,” “The Golden Compass,” “About a Boy,” “American Pie”), whose grandmother, Mexican actress Lupita Tovar, emigrated in the 1920s and whose wife is half-Cuban/half-Mexican.
Earnestly sincere and, perhaps, sentimental, it’s nevertheless captivating, reminiscent of Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 neo-realistic Italian classic, “The Bicycle Thief.” Spanish cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe captures glimpses of Los Angeles that are rarely photographed, including an authentic “charro” or Mexican rodeo, accented by a Alexandre Desplat’s Latin-inflected musical score.
And if Demian Bichir looks familiar: he’s played the scary drug kingpin Esteban on Showtime’s “Weeds” and Castro in “Che.”
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “A Better Life” is a timely, compassionate 8, illuminating the contemporary immigrant experience.