Chris Weitz‘s A Better Life (Summit, 6.24) is a simple, earnest, bare-bones drama. It has dignity and humanity and, for me, across-the-board believability. It’s a solid, honest film that deserves patronage and respect and year-end tributes. Particularly because of strong co-lead performances from Damian Bichir and newcomer Jose Julian. I can’t put it any plainer than that.
A Better Life is basically an LA Latino riff on Vittorio De Sica ‘s The Bicycle Thieves (whether it was intended to be seen in this light or not) and as such is genuinely moving, if a little too grim and deflating at times.
I’m not setting A Better Life up for a fall by comparing it to De Sica’s 1948 classic. It’s not a beat-for-beat remake (the screenplay was apparently based on a true-life L.A. story) but it does use the basic Bicycle bones by being largely about a poor, illegal-alien Latino father (Bichir) struggling to reclaim a recently purchased pickup truck that’s been stolen by another poor man, and with the help of his teenage son (Julian).
It’s basically a tale of a tough, persistent, hard-luck mouse. And in our wildly egoistic me-me bing culture I’m wondering who outside of guilty westside liberals has the patience and humility to tough it out with a sad-sack S.A. who can’t catch a break? Life keeps jabbing and slugging Bichir’s character — bitchslapping him, kicking him in the shins and delivering one form or another of trial and humiliation…but he keeps on plugging and holds onto his dignity and humanity. In the end he wins your respect and affection.
He also manages to win the respect and love of his son, who’s regarded him with mostly pity and contempt throughout most of the film. This achievement is pretty much what the film is about. Like De Sica’s film, A Better Life is not about winning or beating the system or lucking out.
Bichir (who played Fidel Castro in Steven Soderbergh‘s Che films) and Julian’s performances are as solid and open-pored as it gets. They share an emotional confession scene near the very end that pretty much ties the whole film together.
A Better Life trailer prompted an early suspicion that it was basically a white man’s (i.e., director Chris Weitz‘s) take on a Latino situation. Well, it doesn’t play that way. Yes, English is spoken but when it happens it feels right. Ethnically speaking A Better Life felt nearly as genuine and real-deal to me as Carey Fukanaga‘s Sin Nombre. The cast is almost entirely Latino, and over half of the dialogue is in Spanish, and…well, there’s just no “white guy” thing I could detect. Weitz is partly Spanish, it turns out. Maybe a Latino critic will come along and call me blind.
It’s clearly one of the truest and sturdiest films I’ve seen so far this year. It may turn out to be more of a Spirit Awards winner than an Oscar contender but let’s see where it goes.
I saw A Better Life last night at Santa Moncia’s Aero theatre, under the aegis of Pete Hammond‘s KCET screening series. Seitz and producer Christian McLaughlin answered questions following the showing.
For what it’s worth I used to work as a tree-trimmer in Los Angeles. I used to climb up palm trees with spikes and a belt chain and use pole saws and do ornamental pruning and remove dead leaders and limbs and install cables…the whole shot. It’s brutal work and it doesn’t pay all that well either, but I learned how to pull myself up with ropes and swing around with a leather saddle and a half-hitch knot and handle a chain saw and sharpen the blades with a file, etc. I could tell you stories.