Film review: A Better Life

A Better Life (12A) ***Directed by: Chris WeitzStarring: Demián Bechir, Jose Julián, Chelsea Rendon

IT USED to be that African-Americans were the only minority the chiefly Caucasian executives of Tinseltown noticed, not the Hispanics tending their homes and gardens. For every Mi Vida Loca, there'd be ten Menace II Society wannabes depicting the struggles of urban America's disenfranchised black youth.

Yet over the past two decades, migration from Latin America has risen sharply. In 2008, the US Census listed the country's Latino population as 47.7 per cent, not including undocumented migrants: a minority had, almost overnight, become a silent quasi-majority, and a demographic just too vast for Hollywood to ignore.

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Changes were afoot in the media landscape. Supported by fervent fanbases, Jennifer Lopez, Antonio Banderas and Shakira became international megastars; HBO grew from delivering telenovelas to inner-city Hispanic subscribers to become one of TV's most recognisable brands. Meanwhile, the debate about the nation's borders raged on the rolling news channels, often couched in rabid right-wing rhetoric: illegal immigrants weren't classed as people but "aliens", with all the threat to Main Street America's survival the paranoid terminology implied.

It's precisely this rhetoric that A Better Life seeks to counter. Chris Weitz's drama centres on Carlos Galindo (Demin Bichir), a loving father, and one among many hard-working illegals dedicating themselves to the upkeep of LA's parched lawns. His particular speciality is the shearing of leaves from the city's palm trees, a task that requires him to shimmy up tree trunks - a nimble metaphor, this, for the social ladder, although Carlos probably wouldn't see it as such: his simple goal is to "keep quiet and stay invisible", and especially to avoid la Migra, the immigration authorities waiting to ship him back home to Mexico.

His fate turns on a betrayal dismayingly common to the socioeconomic food chain's lower reaches. One afternoon, while Carlos is busy shearing, one of his fellow migrants steals away with the truck vital to his business. Unable to report the theft - owing to his outsider status - he sets off after the culprit, anguished and desperate, accompanied only by Luis (Jos Julin), his combative teenage son. A surprise influence gradually reveals itself: 1948's Bicycle Thieves, that neo-realist landmark about a man robbed of his tools and thus his mobility.In the theft's immediate aftermath, Carlos fails to flag down a speeding sports car driven by one of the city's landed white denizens, and must continue his pursuit by bus or on foot.

It's perhaps equally surprising that A Better Life should bear the name of Weitz, who himself once appeared one of Hollywood's chosen few. After early success with the American Pie films, Weitz oversaw the disastrous The Golden Compass, and was turfed off the Twilight series after 2009's New Moon. In a sense, this director, too, has become disenfranchised, and the abasement becomes him: the noble aim here seems to be to shuck off the prevailing blockbuster mindset, and set out a 98-minute narrative uncluttered by prior expectations or trailer-friendly effects.

True, Weitz still has all the advantages of a film produced by Summit, the mini-studio behind the Twilight films: top-drawer collaborators here include cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe (The Others), keenly exploring the variously harsh and diffuse qualities of California sunlight. Yet the film insistently allows itself time and space to observe the Latino community's faces and customs; the search for the truck is halted for a trip to the charro, a ritualised equestrian spectacle, because Weitz loves the colour and bustle there - but also because he recognises the event once formed an integral part of his characters' lives.

Compared to the compromised The Golden Compass in particular, A Better Life feels all round better managed. Eric Eason's three-act screenplay is pleasingly classical, and Weitz has movie intelligence enough to make his set-pieces count: a sequence in which father and son try to liberate the truck from a garage is as suspenseful as anything now showing. More encouraging yet is the director's apparent rediscovery of actors: Bichir, so imposing as Castro in Soderbergh's Che, huddles under his baseball cap, making himself as nondescript as Carlos needs to be, and Julian nails Luis's ghetto-headedness, a combustible mix of frustration and flat-out tiredness at the grunt work he's obliged to put in to survive.

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The generous budget would appear to preclude the harder edges of a Sin Nombre or Maria Full of Grace, rather more visceral, independent takes on the migrant experience; a coda, finding Carlos on the move again, is hardly triumphant, but suggests someone along the line was pressing for a redemption to go with their family-friendly certificate.

Yet the whole is unusually, commendably sincere about its characters, and the tale it tells. Modest as A Better Life may be in scope, it commits wholeheartedly to achieving the goal of socially conscious cinema: to make visible the previously unseen.