After Chris Weitz finished directing Twilight: New Moon, he could've chosen to make any film he wanted. But instead of some megabudget sci-fi fantasy based on the cartoon he loved as a child, Weitz used his cache to make a movie honoring his Mexican roots from a screenplay that had been languishing for 25 years. That movie is A Better Life, which puts a human face on the millions of illegal immigrants -- who we rely on every day to feed us, build and maintain our homes, and take care of our children -- by telling the story of an undocumented gardener (Mexican star Demian Bichir) and the lengths he'll go to in order to provide a future for his American-born teenage son. Watch the trailer for A Better Life below.
Bichir plays Carlos, who has been living illegally in Los Angeles for years. He works tirelessly as a gardener, maintaining the yards of LA's wealthy, until he returns to his small house to sleep on the couch in his clothes, allowing his son, Luis (newcomer José Julian), to use the house's only bedroom.
Luis, who looks down on his father and has been growing apart from him for years, has been slacking at school and is increasingly feeling the pull of LA's Latino gangs, especially from his best friend (Bobby Soto) and Luis' girlfriend (Chelsea Rendon), whose family is largely made up of gang members. But when Carlos' boss offers to sell Carlos his pickup truck and gardening equipment, Carlos sees an opportunity to own his own business and make enough money to move to a neighborhood with a better school for his son.
But soon after Carlos buys the truck with the help of a big loan from his sister, it gets stolen, leading to what sometimes feels like a detective or crime thriller playing out in tense slow motion as Carlos and Luis traverse the Mexican neighborhoods of Los Angeles by bus to track down the truck. While the objectives in crime thrillers are often suitcases full of cash, car trunks full of drugs, or a murderer on the loose, the stakes in A Better Life feel like they couldn't be higher, with the stolen truck representing Carlos' last chance to save his son from jail or an early death by a gang banger's bullet, where the most minor brush with the law could cause Carlos to be deported back to Mexico and separated from Luis.
Because at it's heart, A Better Life is the story of a father's love for his son, which shines through every moment of Bichir's powerful yet subtle performance, as Carlos and Luis' quest to find the truck gives them a chance to spend the kind of time together that Carlos' long hours haven't allowed. In the process, Luis learns valuable lessons about his roots, as well as what it means to be a father and how to treat people with respect. Filmed at over 70 locations across Los Angeles, A Better Life also provides a glimpse into the lives of Mexican Americans and illegal immigrants, including a Mexican rodeo, an apartment converted to a makeshift dorm for undocumented workers, and a home where gang members are raising their families.
At a time when Republicans are attempting to demonize and scapegoat illegal immigrants for America's problems, A Better Life reveals the truth that so many immigrants and their descendants, including myself, already know -- that immigrants, legal or not, are perhaps the purest reflection of the American dream, which isn't to become a millionaire, but to improve the lives of their families through hard work. A Better Life is a moving, beautiful film that I've thought of often since seeing it, and it should be seen by anyone who loves movies. But it should be required viewing for Republicans, who should be asked if they would act differently from Carlos, in a country where they had illegally immigrated, if the future of their children was at stake.
A Better Life is rated PG-13 and opens today in New York and LA. So if you live in those cities, please see A Better Life opening weekend to help it get the wider distribution it deserves.
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