Wednesday, 11 January 2012

“I didn’t do *nothing*”

A Better Life: directed by Chris Weitz; written by Roger L. Simon, Eric Eason

About all that you need to know about A Better Life can be discerned from its opening few scenes. The father at the film’s heart gets up from his makeshift bed in the couch, the single bed used for his son who from his act of giving him money he doesn’t have tells us that in many ways Carlos Galindo is our protagonist who belongs to the school of parenting made most popular by Lana Turner in Imitation of Life and Joan Crawford (and more recently Kate Winslet) in Mildred Pierce - selflessly living for their children. (And, okay maybe that’s a bit of oversimplification because Carlos’ son Luis isn’t as diabolical as Mary Jane or Veda but allow me my conceits.) Somewhere near the opening we learn too Carlos is an illegal immigrant, and he’s palpably nervy about this experience. And, like him, we spend much of the film waiting for the knock on the door to expose it all.

A Better Life is one of those films which seems made to engender acute feelings of sympathy in the audience towards the plight of its protagonist. It plays out with, what should be scene after heart-warming scene meant to hit us on an emotional level, almost daring the audience the audience to not be moved, to not be impressed. Well, I take that dare. It does not gel. Immigration is a hot button issue, and it makes for particularly polemic meanderings in the United States. So, immediately it’s a bit underwhelming that such a potentially complex issue is presented in such a melodramatic way.

For most of the movie we don’t know what has become of Carolos’ wife and Luis’ mother, but Carlos it would seem is the sole breadwinner of the home, and the solitary parent to this sullen boy who when his father admits to being unable to offer him any money glibly says, “I’ll jack an old lady, then,” and it’s not so much because he actually will do it (he’s not hardened enough to actually try it, and to add tension to Carlos’ hope of a good life for his is the ubiquitous presence of hard-edged gangsters in their neighbourhood, the lure of which Luis must fight); he just knows to get what he wants and is unaware of the struggle his father is making to give him a *ahem* better life. He’s working at a landscaping business at the moment, but his employer is soon returning to Mexico and with the help of his sister (Dolores Heredia, particularly effective in a few scenes) buys a truck to get himself started on his own business. He doesn’t have a license, and driving without one will get him deported. Clearly, he’ll be getting deported some time soon.
But, not immediately, for the film necessitates that the father and the son duo share some tough moments together to bond with each other and thus, on the very first day out to work with his new (old) truck helping out someone down on their luck he gets his truck stolen and he and Luis make out – the next day – to retrieve it. Little, sometimes infinitesimal, things can take me out of a movie. As I said, little things but they add up to make a film completely lose its effect. There is a scene in A Better Life where a father and son set off in search of the father’s stole truck a day after it was lost. At what seems to be a dead end, the son decided to call his father’s phone which happened in the truck. It immediately takes me out of the movie. First, you’d think that would have been one of the first reactions to a stole phone – to call it. And, more obviously, you’d think that anyone stealing a phone would take the gargantuan amount of time to take the sim card out. And, it’s a small thing, but it’s one of the examples of how things in A Better Life happen just to serve plot arcs, and not for any logic.
And, sure, the eventual pay off works when Demian Bichir with those soulful eyes breaks down in a jail cell without actually breaking down but one moving performance does not a moving film make, and it doesn’t even make a necessarily good film. And he’s backed by a thudding performance by José Julián who I feel bad for criticising because of his youth, but is so astonishingly bad running the gamut from sullen teen to VERY sullen teen in a role that’s admittedly one-note. Sure, the film has earnest concerns and lovely intentions but still, it’s a bit unfortunate how it skirts over what could have been something significantly better. It has all these things it could do…but it doesn’t do “nothing”, but…eh, whatever. I won’t make that pun, too easy.



Squasher88 said...

Sheesh, tough crowd! I loved that movie.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

squasher i know, i'm sorry :( it's such a well intentioned movie, and demian is so good and i KNOW you liked it. i'm not evil, i promise.