Dramas about illegal immigrants have often focused on the journey north — an odyssey pocked with exploitation and fear, but one that generally ends on a note of road-weary triumph. In A Better Life, however, the focus is on the plight of undocumented immigrants who are already ensconced in the United States. Carlos (Demián Bichir), an unassuming gardener, came up from Mexico years ago and made a home in Los Angeles, but to call anything about his existence ”settled” would be an exaggeration. His wife, frustrated by his modest ambitions, left him long ago, and the son he’s raised on his own, Luis (José Julián), is a sullen teenager increasingly drawn to the tattooed allure of gang life. Carlos must keep his head down, literally and emotionally, but anyone who looks at him and sees a meek, pleading, recessive man isn’t reading between the lines of Demián Bichir’s superb slow simmer of a performance. His Carlos is a silent striver who, like the heroes of The Bicycle Thief and Man Push Cart, embodies a humanity that is ultimately heartbreaking.
It’s no cheap irony when Carlos’ attempt to improve his and his son’s lot leads him down a rabbit hole of misfortune. He agrees to take over a colleague’s gardening business (chief asset: a truck), but being an owner turns out to be a lot more treacherous than being an anonymous day worker. When the truck is stolen, Carlos claws and schemes to get it back. The struggle draws him closer to his son, but risks bringing his undocumented status to the attention of the law. A Better Life was directed by the eclectic Chris Weitz (The Twilight Saga: New Moon, About a Boy), who weaves the torpor and anxiety of immigrant life into something dramatically true, if at moments a bit draggy. By the time Carlos confronts a choice he prayed he’d never have to make, the film has put a face on lives we too often feel free to judge without knowing. B+