Director Chris Weitz’s eclecticism gets another workout with his new film, A Better Life, the story of an undocumented Mexican worker in Los Angeles and his struggle to earn a living and win the respect of his increasingly rebellious teenage son. A Better Life is a small, socially conscious character study — a huge departure for Weitz following his direction of the Hollywood epics, The Twilight Saga: New Moon and The Golden Compass. Yet, his résumé also includes a couple of unexpected hits he made with his brother Paul: American Pie, the first film in the raunchy Pie franchise, and About a Boy, the Hugh Grant dramedy based on Nick Hornby’s popular novel.
Kudos should be extended to Weitz for always stretching beyond the familiar; however, the results in this instance are less than spectacular. A Better Life rarely transcends its programmatic structure and predictable character arcs, although its immigrant, working-class milieu is drenched in realism and heartache.
It’s surprising that the plot is as unoriginal as it is since the screenplay was written by Eric Eason (from a story by Roger L. Simon), whose own film Manito was such a distinctive tale about immigrant culture in New York City neighborhood of Washington Heights.
Mexican superstar Demián Bichir also lends a lot of credence to A Better Life in the role of the father, Carlos Galindo: Bichir’s performance is a quiet study of desperation. A single father, Carlos works as a gardener who ekes out a living and sleeps on the couch of the run-down apartment he shares with his teenage son Luis (Jose Julián), who is steadily drifting away from school and toward gang life. When Carlos decides to borrow money and buy his friend’s truck so that he may strike out on his own, a cruel twist of fate befalls him: The truck is stolen by someone even less fortunate than Carlos. Nevertheless, Luis chooses to accompany Carlos when the man sets out to find the thief.
At this point, A Better Life takes a turn toward Bicycle Thieves as the father and son search for the modest transportation that is the key to their survival. Of course, father and son finally bond during their shared quest, which only makes the harsh melodrama of the film’s closing act more tearful. In his screen debut, Julián proves unsteady and inadequately matched to Bichir’s easy professionalism.
A Better Life is, indeed, a heart-tugger about the countless undocumented workers who are rarely depicted as the subjects of their own stories — and that might be enough for the film to find the audience it seeks. But unlike its multifaceted director, the film never stretches its boundaries. Grade: D-plus
Opens July 15. Check out theaters and show times, see the trailer and get theater details here.