While too tonally inconsistent to achieve the mini-gem status that director Chris Weitz is aiming for, “A Better Life” is a welcome, down-to-earth and heartfelt alternative to the prevailing summer silliness and swagger. The film is a reasonably effective father-son drama and a notable immigrant-condition story that places a rare and thoughtful focus on the daily experience of living without papers.
Weitz, whose seesaw filmography includes “The Twilight Saga: New Moon” and “About a Boy” (co-directed with brother Paul), has both retained some of his previously employed Hollywood artifice and returned to smallish mode with this contemporary take on “The Bicycle Thief,” scripted by Eric Eason. The primary setting is East Los Angeles and its community of Hispanics, immigrants and day laborers.
Mexico-born Carlos Galido (Demian Bichir) is a devoted father who lives with his Americanized teenage son, Luis (Jose Julian), and makes ends meet by working long hours in the yards of wealthy homeowners across town.
A big break arrives when Carlos has the chance to buy his boss’s business (basically, a truck and gardening equipment). He borrows money from his sister (Dolores Heredia) and makes the purchase, which he views as a ticket to a brighter future for Luis, a good but susceptible kid whose public school looks like a prison and whose friends are gangbangers.
The euphoria dies quickly, however, when the truck is stolen almost immediately.
Carlos is devastated, and his situation ignites a concern in the sullen Luis, who helps his father search for the truck. While one unlucky step could attract police, and even the mildest such encounter could get the undocumented Carlos deported, the journey results in a meaningful reconnection between father and son.
Although the plot is similar, the film doesn’t convey the desperation or tragedy found in Vittorio De Sica’s aforementioned stolen-bicycle classic. Weitz’s erratically tempered drama often puts a glossy or sentimental sheen on its tales of hard luck and poverty. Eason’s screenplay contains no surprises.
But when Weitz simply absorbs us in the currents of his characters’ lives, he delivers a vital picture of his L.A. setting and an impressively natural, atmospheric, considerate and relevant look at the seldom-spotlighted world, struggles and contributions of undocumented immigrants.
A passage involving a Mexican rodeo is particularly vibrant among such material. Also memorable are scenes featuring work-seeking day laborers amassed on street corners; immigrants toiling in a sweltering-looking kitchen; and the everyday camaraderie and private humanity of tattooed gangbangers.
The anchoring performance by Bichir (seen on TV’s “Weeds”) also is noteworthy. When Weitz’s earnestness threatens to render Carlos a bit too saintly, the Mexican star counteracts the problem by giving his character, and the movie, crucial passion and nuance.
Starring Demian Bichir, Jose Julian, Dolores Heredia
Written by Eric Eason
Directed by Chris Weitz
Running time 1 hour 38 minutes