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Movie Review

A Better Life

A father and son and a life that could go either way

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By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / July 15, 2011

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A movie called “A Better Life’’ could almost only be about immigrants. It’s generic and small but manages to reel you in and surprise you with its grimness. To get there, a few too many coincidences provoke too much unearned emotion (whence so many tears?). But as movies go about East Los Angelenos stealing back their stuff, this one is sincere.

Carlos (Demián Bichir) shares a one-bed apartment with his teenage son Luis (José Julián). It’s fair to think this movie was originally written for two women, since Luis treats his dad the way teenage girls treat their mothers. The difference here is that Luis is yea-close to the tractor beam of gang life, and there’s not much that Carlos seems capable of doing to reroute him. The boy doesn’t quite respect his father, who’s an illegal Mexican day laborer who has a great rusty mustache and drives without a license. But his fortunes change after he buys into a landscaping business that fills them both with hope for the titular upgrade.

At some point, Carlos hikes up one of the palm trees whose fronds he cuts back, and in the smogless Los Angeles vista, he glows momentarily at the prospect of even a hint of prosperity. It’s fleeting. In that very same scene, Carlos stops daydreaming in time to look down and see the bad news that he spends the rest of the movie trying to correct. The situation does bring him closer to Luis. They hit the streets together looking for answers, and the director, Chris Weitz, who also made “About a Boy’’ and the second “Twilight’’ movie, allows the relationship between Carlos and Luis to simmer during their mini odyssey. Luis wants to jack up everyone who’s crossed his father. Carlos wants to use the experience to teach Luis that not all problems deserve a Crips solution.

Eric Eason’s script is storybook simple, even after the legal complications. But how does one ignore the sadness in Bichir’s smoky good looks? He’s not the most expressive actor, - he was Mary Louise Parker’s drug kingpin baby daddy on “Weeds’’ - but what he lacks in range he makes up for here in concentrated decency. This isn’t a case of a liberal-minded movie inflicting goodness upon a character but a man radiating goodness because, well, he is good.

Which, I suppose, is essential in a movie whose point seems to be: As bad as things are, they could always be worse. It’s true. Carlos could be the unemployed father in Vittorio De Sica’s “Bicycle Thieves,’’ a tragedy that “A Better Life’’ evokes and whose panoramic cruelness has lost none of its power to shock after 71 years. This new movie goes out of its way to be punitive in ways that came naturally in De Sica’s film. Weitz’s movie isn’t daring enough to grind a life down the way De Sica’s did. Weitz and Eason strain for politics, which, with them, while considerably less powerful, is effective in its way. It’s not people who are inherently flawed, the movie argues. It’s this country’s immigration system.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com.

A BETTER LIFE

Directed by: Chris Weitz

Written by: Eric Eason

Starring: Demián Bichir

and José Julián

At: Kendall Square

Running time: 98 minutes

PG-13 (some violence, language and brief drug use)

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