It would have been nice if the makers of this painfully earnest film about an undocumented immigrant struggling to raise his American-born son in Los Angeles had acknowledged their obvious debt to one of the most famous Italian Neo-realist pictures, Vittorio De Sica’s “The Bicycle Thief.” True, the vehicle here is a truck, but its theft is the driving force—if you’ll excuse the pun—of the narrative. Still, in today’s moviemaking climate, if such borrowing were a crime, the court dockets would be jammed.
The truck is bought, with his savings as well as a loan from his sister Anita (Delores Heredia), by Carlos Galindo (Demian Bichir). He’s been working for years as assistant to a landscaper (Joaquin Cosio) who plans to move back to Mexico with his hard-earned nest egg. Despite the danger if he’s stopped by the police, Carlos plans to take on an assistant and make a better life for himself and his son Luis (Jose Julian), especially since the kid is being drawn toward gang activities by classmates at his inner-city school.
Unfortunately, the man Carlos chooses as his assistant, Santiago (Carlos Linares), repays the kindness by stealing the truck with all Carlos’ equipment inside. Galindo has no choice but to track him down—and Luis joins his father on the desperate quest, in the course of which they bond, even at one point taking the time to attend a Mexican-style rodeo they’d visited years before. And though they do reclaim the truck, it proves Carlos’ undoing, since he’s be arrested while driving it home, threatening him with deportation and separation from his US-born son.
It has to be said that Eric Eason’s script has a very schematic feel, and wears its didacticism on its sleeve. And Chris Weitz’s direction sometimes accentuates its heavy-handed aspects, as in the scenes involving Luis and the friends who are pushing him toward gang involvement. They frankly have an Afterschool Special vibe to them.
But the picture is redeemed to a large extent by Bichir, who brings quiet dignity to Galindo, refusing to wallow in sentiment even when the writing invites him to. And though Julian is so boyishly cute that he would be right at home on the Disney Channel, he shows some flashes of violence that give Luis darker currents. “A Better Life” is essentially a two-character piece, but apart from the younger cast members, who tend to overdo things, the support is at least adequate. So is the physical production, from Javier Aguirrearobe’s cinematography on down, which creates a naturalistic background for the action.
“A Better Life” isn’t the equal of its Italian model, sometimes coming across more like a Stanley Kramer film one “ought to see” rather than a genuinely powerful human drama that just happens to have social relevance as well. But Bichir’s performance grounds it in a reality it might otherwise have lacked.