In Home Viewings: "A Better Life"

Carlos Galindo (Demian Bichir) wants nothing more than to provide his son, Luis (Jose Julian), with the life he himself never had. An illegal alien who has lived in the US for many years, Carlos works as a gardener and keeps his head down, always mindful of what deportation would mean for his son. Luis, meanwhile, is a typically rebellious teenager who doesn’t understand or appreciate his father’s sacrifices and who is on the brink of joining the local gang. When Carlos’ boss planning to leave the gardening business and head home, he offers to sell his truck and equipment to his loyal employee. Desperate to make something happen for himself, Carlos accepts the offer and goes into business for himself, a risk he normally would not take. But when the truck is stolen by a day laborer, Carlos and Luis go on a journey to recover their property and in the process, rebuild the relationship that they’ve both sorely missed.

I think it was a surprise to many to find Demian Bichir’s name among those nominated for Best Actor at this year’s Academy Awards. On a list that includes Gary Oldman, George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and eventual winner Jean Dujardin, Bichir seemed a bit out of place, especially considering some of the great work done by accomplished actors who were not recognized by the academy (Ryan Gosling, Michael Shannon, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, etc.). This is one of those situations, however, that demands a viewing before judgment because, having now seen A Better Life, I can certainly understand the Academy’s decision. Simply put, this is a heartfelt, power house performance by an actor that perfectly embodies his role. Carlos encapsulates elements of heartbreak and hope, misfortune and motivation and in doing so creates a deeply layered and personal portrayal. Bichir plays Carlos with subtlety, acting as much with his eyes as with his words, giving notice of the internal conflict waging within the man throughout his various struggles. It is truly an outstanding performance and one that carries significant weight.

The rest of A Better Life, though, doesn’t quite measure up to the brilliance of the lead performer. Many of the early scenes come off as manufactured rather than organic, a polar opposite to the path that Bichir takes with his character. It is too earnest at times and that could cause cynical jerks like me to bail on the film before it ever really gets going. To be fair, A Better Life gets better as it goes and eventually leaves the safety of borderline-manipulative Oscar bait behind in favor of a more genuine tone but in some ways that makes the first act even more frustrating. There are also a handful of scenes that could have been edited out or restructured more purposefully and many of Bichir’s colleagues fail to deliver at a compatible level with the film’s star. Julian shows flashes of excellence but overall I found his performance to be spotty and less-than believable. I can’t say whether the blame for this rests on Julian or the film’s director, Chris Weitz, but the dynamic between father and son didn’t always deliver. It would have been interesting to see Bichir go toe-to-toe with a more challenging co-star, similar to the interactions between George Clooney and Shailene Woodley in The Descendants.

What saves A Better Life from becoming yet another independent film that doesn’t live up to the strength of its leading performer is the conclusion. Weitz saves his best work for last, creating a stirring, emotional scene in the very end in which Bichir delivers beautifully and which exhibits the very best of the relationship between Carlos and Luis. It is a hopeful, impactful finale that covers over the film’s previous missteps and allowed me to leave with a higher opinion of the film than I might have had otherwise. The result is a good movie highlighted my one fantastic performance and brought home by one stirring scene.