This cousin to understated, emotional pictures like Under The Same Moon and Sin Nombre might be too fastidious in approach and execution. Still, it often is a moving, if schematic father-son tale.
A Better Life stars Demian Bichir and Jose Julian and is sensitive to the plight of immigration, specifically Mexican-Americans in Los Angeles.
Long before the birth of his younger teenage son Luis (Julian), Bichir's Mexican gardener Carlos had lived there with no documentation. Scenarist Eric Eason relates the inherent tension from the pressures of Carlos having the opportunities to afford his son more than was afforded to him. That comes in the form of a truck purchase, as a potential move from a harsh neighborhood would definitely be beneficial for Luis.
A familiar, yet involving premise allows for subtle, captivating drama from the possibility of Carlos losing a chancy, but pleasant existence with Luis when an offense is committed leaving him in a desperate state where decisiveness has consequences.
So, father and son have enough disquietude to endure which might be a tad treacly as director Chris Weitz (who did the fine About A Boy) maybe tunes the mood and underpinnings with somewhat of a synthetic subtlety.
That being said, the discord and squalor with warmth filtered in has a potency even without enough ominous musical cues. Noticeable backup comes from Bobby Soto as Luis's friend, Dolores Heredia as Carlos's accomplished, if frustrated sister, Anita. And, Richard Cabral makes for an imposing mustached, tattooed thuggish figure.
No invisible touch is apparent in the gamut from the funny to the unnerving in the treatment of the lead characters as Julian, and, especially Bichir, respond with honesty to their characters's feelings and the influences around them. A Better Life might have been a more vivid, rewarding cinematic experience if it wasn't as self-conscious about making its points. The humanity and moral ambivalence still manages to grip around curbsides of so many similar sequences cut from the intensity arising from immigration.
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