While America is a nation of immigrants, in the 21st century some immigrants are more welcome than others, and the issue of undocumented aliens in the United States, long a hot-button topic among conservative politicians and pundits, has become increasingly contentious as the burden of illegal immigrants is blamed for everything from high crime rates, rising taxes, and increased health-care costs to wildfires in the Southwest (the latter according to a controversial statement made by Senator John McCain, one that was refuted by spokesmen from the U.S. Forest Service). At the same time, most illegal aliens are in the United States for one simple reason -- to work -- and more than a few industries in this country have chosen to tacitly look the other way on the legal status of their employees in order to have a reliable workforce willing to do difficult labor for low wages (which are still better than what they would earn at home). Filmmaker Chris Weitz gives us a look into the lives of illegal immigrants in Southern California in his drama A Better Life, which touches on politics and economics but is more concerned with the human side of the issue, as a father and son try to make a life for themselves in a place that has mixed feelings about their presence.
In A Better Life, Demián Bichir plays Carlos Galindo, a middle-aged single father who jumped the border from Mexico into California with his late wife years ago and has been living in Los Angeles ever since. Carlos makes his living doing yard work with his pal Blasco (Joaquin Cosio), who owns a pickup truck and a collection of gardening equipment and has enough steady customers to keep him busy. While Carlos' job is better than day labor, it's also hard and sometimes risky work for low wages, and he wants something better for himself and his 15-year-old son, Luis (José Julián). Luis doesn't care much about education -- no great surprise since his high school is overrun by gangs and feels more like a detention center than a place of learning -- and after seeing his father break his back for years with little to show for it, he wants something different but has no clear idea how to get it, short of joining a gang, which he's just smart enough to know is a dead end. Risk and opportunity present themselves to Carlos when Blasco announces he wants to get out of the gardening business and he's willing to sell Carlos his truck, his tools, and his customer list for 12,000 dollars. Though Carlos has to turn to his sister to get the money, he buys the truck and feels like the American dream is finally in reach -- he can be his own boss, make better money, hire a lawyer who can help him become a legal citizen, and move to a neighborhood with better schools for Luis. Carlos sees his dreams crushed to dust when his truck is stolen by a fellow illegal who knows that Carlos can't turn to the police. For the first time, Luis feels like he has a stake in his father's fortunes, and sets out with Carlos to find the truck before the trail goes cold, as the teenager's street-smart cynicism runs up against his father's sense of decency and fairness.
A Better Life is as much the story of a father and son as a study of the world of illegal immigrants in Los Angeles, and the differences between the two men play a significant role in the story. Carlos is a man of principle despite his legal status, and came to America because in his community a man who wanted something better for his family did just that, and more than anything he wants his son to amount to something. Luis, on the other hand, has never known a life beyond the outskirts of L.A., and between watching his father come home exhausted every night with little in his pocket and the dangerous consequences of the local underground economy, Luis doesn't see much opportunity in the Land of the Free, even though he's a citizen, unlike his dad. The two leading actors embody these two sides of the story very well; Demián Bichir, best known for his role on the cable series Weeds, is strong and stoic as Carlos, investing the character with a deep sense of fairness and responsibility that's put to the test by the world around him, and newcomer José Julián accurately captures the arrogance of adolescence while tempering it with an innate intelligence and an undertow of anger at the way fate has treated his father.
Though Eric Eason's screenplay (from a story by Roger L. Simon) touches only lightly on the politics of the immigration issue, it weaves a common thread into the narrative that the biggest issues are ones of money -- those who have the bankroll to hire the right attorney can make their way into the system legitimately and earn the spoils, while the rest have to lay low in a land that clearly wants their services at a bargain price but doesn't care to legally acknowledge them. Director Weitz sometimes plays the melodrama of the story a bit thick, which undercuts the effectiveness of several key moments, but he's smart enough not to play this as a story of saints and sinners -- although Carlos is a good man, we're never led to believe he's perfect, just a hard-working guy looking for a better shake, and even the man who steals his truck turns out to have a reason for committing his crime. After making About a Boy and a pair of big-budget, high-profile projects, The Golden Compass and The Twilight Saga: New Moon, A Better Life feels like a labor of love for Chris Weitz, and if he ladles the drama on a bit thick here and there, his compassion for these characters and the care with which he tells their story is genuinely affecting and powerful. This film is hardly the last word on the immigration debate in the United States, but it shines a light on the families with the most at stake in this matter -- those who believe so strongly in the notion of America as the Land of Opportunity.