By Eric Kohn | Indiewire June 20, 2011 at 1:54AM
There are moments in Chris Weitz's immigration drama that transcend the familiarity of the material, and others that play directly into it. In the swift, wordless opening sequence, the director reveals the life of sullen middle-aged gardener Carlos (Demián Bichir) living out his days as an impoverished illegal immigrant in Los Angeles. The credit sequence encapsulates an entire 12-hour period in Carlos' life, from waking up on his living room couch to toiling away in the heat and then back to his claustrophobic abode as dusk sets in.
Later, he endures the frustrating task of soliciting Americans for work on the side of the road, finding respite when a fellow Mexican lifts his spirits. Again, actions speak louder than words, as Weisz turns up the soundtrack and simply shows the two men brighten up. These are smartly observed snapshots of humanity.
However, when the stakes in Carlos' life keep going up, and his hopes for improving conditions for himself and his estranged teenage son Luis (José Julián) start to fade, "A Better Life" loses its pull. The story teeters on the edge between bearable family drama and unimaginative sensationalism before eventually jumping off the cliff into a bucket of tears. It's an unfortunate plunge that happens with ease. Weitz flirts with greatness but unfortunately misses the opportunity to make the material soar. And yet he comes close.
Fresh from the erratic blockbuster experiences of directing "The Golden Compass" and the second "Twilight" movie, Weitz has chosen material that requires no expensive trickery or even star power to get its point across. That sort of retreat is always interesting to watch, and in this case it begs for attention. "A Better Life" indulges in a steady amount of understatement whereas neither "The Golden Compass" or "Twilight: New Moon" had any. More significantly, "A Better Life" blatantly retreats from the uglier aspects of commercial allure by assuming a uniformly immigrant perspective. Unlike Tom McCarthy's "The Visitor," Weisz's project provides no basic focal point for broader audiences through the appearance of a white character plagued by white person guilt. ("The Visitor" has plenty of virtues, but the way its immigrant couple are seen through the eyes of an old, vanilla professorial type couldn't have hurt its popularity.)
Despite the distinctive arrangement of characters, however, "A Better Life" delves into a conventional scenario from the very beginning. Growing up in a single parent household (his parents divorced years ago), Luis routinely finds himself in trouble in school and sports a moody persona that threatens to bring him into gang life. His dad just wants to do honest work and improve the quality of their existence. He tries to be a stern father figure. "You wanna end up like me?" he asks Luis, who just rolls his eyes. Even though they butt heads, Carlos and Luis harbor a mutual trust that makes their opportunity to bond inevitable. When Carlos runs into problems with a local thief, father and son join forces to set things right. Even this rudimentary progression works due to the chemistry between the actors and particularly Bichir (Fidel Castro in Steven Soderbergh's "Che") in a sharply focused performance.
Without a doubt, "A Better Life" forms Weisz's most assured, adult work (his other credits include "About a Boy" and "Down to Earth," both co-directed with brother Paul). Nevertheless, it owes a lot of its initial momentum to Eric Eason's unhurried screenplay, which builds toward a daring climax that brings Carlos and Luis closer together while putting joint in jeopardy.
But after a discerning opener, "A Better Life" falters by concluding with a sigh. Carlos delivers a weepy monologue about family bonds and personal yearning, an unfortunate departure from the restraint in the earlier scenes. Carlos' meeting with a statstics-touting immigration officer wanders into unnecessarily didactic turf. It's a frustrating misstep that the filmmaker chooses to tell instead of show the drama, when he has already demonstrated an understanding of the classic dictum that just showing can speak volumes.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? In the capable hands of distributor Summit Entertainment, "A Better Life" is poised to land solid reviews and enough niche appeal to do some decent business in limited release, but it's too slight to gain much momentum beyond that.
criticWIRE grade: B-