Friday, November 23, 2012

A Better Life needs A Bigger Audience.

Movie Review: A Better Life

Director: Chris Weitz

Reviewed: 19 November 2012

jamesintexas rating--*** (3 stars)

"A Better Life" slipped past most audiences, and despite an Oscar nomination for Damian Bichir for Best Actor, I have not yet met anyone who has seen this film.  Modest in its scope, director Chris Weitz has crafted a film that weaves the modern post-9-11 politics of deportation into a tender relationship story between an undocumented father Carlos Galindo (Bichir) and his teenage son Luis (Jose Julian).  In a year when "self-deportation" was legitimate policy suggested by one of the two presidential candidates, Weitz's film focuses on the reality of illegality, represented in the omnipresent fear of police, the inability to seek legal justice for crimes committed, and the juxtaposition between the Malibu landscapes and the harsh work being done by workers to create that image.  Carlos and Luis see each other rarely; the opening shot is a dissolve of the father sleeping uncomfortably on the couch before departing for work. His son hangs around the edges of the world of Los Angeles gangland violence, chasing down a fellow student, earning a suspension, dating a girl with gang ties, suggesting a possible future reality available to him.  A reality different than the subservient, punishing work that his father endures, climbing up palm trees, working with the land.  Their conversations are brief and harsh, punctuated by open and uncomfortable disdain by the son for the father's type of work.

"A Better Life" keeps a narrow focus on a small cast, and by the forty-five minute mark when something disastrous occurs, I was emotionally hooked and fraught with nervousness for the aftermath. And the aftermath is rooted in logic and the realities of the characters; the stakes are quite real.  Carlos's crumpled baseball cap, hesitant English and his lined face convey a world of pain endured and sacrifices made.  Bichir's performance is the powerhouse here, holding most of the screen time.  His actions suggest a desperate man but a man with his honor intact.    

Weitz has an interesting track record as a director.  He has worked on "American Pie," "The Golden Compass," "About A Boy," as well as "The Twilight Saga: New Moon."  I have on seen "Pie" and "Boy," but both seem preoccupied with a central father-son relationship.  The emotions at the end of "A Better Life" are genuine and earned, yet I don't think that Luis is allowed the same level of introspection that his father is given.  Luis's actions at the end are significant, yet a jump forward four months leaves too many questions unanswered.  Weitz's direction is fine, yet he doesn't reach beyond the melodrama of the final third of the film.  He has made a relationship film and an issue film, yet doesn't seem interested in moving into a more profound realm.  However, Weitz depicts an insular world and its denizens with respect and care, and I hope to see more films like this one.

A film that deserves of an audience, "A Better Life" quietly pushes the question of immigration policy and the disruption of families into the forefront.  It works best in several quiet moments between father and son, as well as some intense scenes of suspense.  Many people denigrated Bichir's nomination last year for Best Actor over the more well-known, flashy performances of Michael Fassbender for "Shame" and Leonardo DiCaprio for "J. Edgar." The Academy was right; Bichir's performance is a quiet masterpiece, deserving of such high praise.

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