It makes absolutely no sense that “A Better Life” is being released Friday. This is a lovely, strong little film featuring the quietly devastating acting duet of Demian Bichir and Jose Julian; two incredible performances that could easily garner award attention with a fall release date. As it stands, “A Better Life” will have to settle for being an unshakable film, destined to be lost amidst the explosions and blockbusters of the summer movie season.
Bichir plays Carlos Galindo, a hard-working illegal immigrant who wants nothing more than the titular better life for his son, Luis (Julian). When he buys a truck to start his own gardening business, Carlos has high aspirations of making enough money to move into a better home and hire an immigration lawyer. And then the truck is stolen and the film begins piling on the bleakness in unbearable amounts.
While many will praise the film’s acting, director Chris Weitz does strong work with material that could have come across as hackneyed. “A Better Life” has a strong sense of place, unafraid to simply let the characters (and the camera) wander through the Los Angeles barrios for a bit. For the most part, Weitz’s direction is understated, but an intense sequence set in a junkyard is a memorable exercise in slowly escalating dread.
However, the film’s real draws are its performances. Bichir’s strong, weary father isn’t a particularly original character, but his quiet restraint and perpetually tired eyes go a long way to making him both human and fascinating. This is never truer than in a final conversation between Carlos and his son in which Bichir delivers a monologue that dares you not to tear up.
As Luis, Julian gives a natural, assured performance but is also saddled with a character who’s something of an insufferable brat. Luis is on the verge of getting mixed up in some rather generic gang activity and almost every line he delivers in the film’s middle stretch is grating.
A refreshing aspect of “A Better Life” is how apolitical it is. It would be easy for the film to turn into soapbox-style preaching about immigration laws, but it mostly refrains from making any higher social points, opting instead to let its message be communicated by the film’s haunting final moments and Bichir’s desperate performance.
Odds are “A Better Life” will be mostly forgotten by the time awards season rolls around, and that’s truly a shame. Bichir is truly a marvel, giving an emotional powerhouse of a performance that manages to be moving without feeling like Oscar bait — the main reason “A Better Life” is as good as it is. And even without the awards recognition, Bichir’s stunning work here won’t be made any less powerful, and “A Better Life” will continue to be an understated, solid film that’s more than worth a viewing.