Carlos Galindo doesn't have immigration papers, only modest hopes of A Better Life across the U.S. border. He's living among huddled Mexican masses in Los Angeles, keeping his head low while toiling as a landscaping laborer and struggling as a single father.
Carlos sleeps on a couch so his beloved teenage son, Luis, can have the bed. His wife left years ago, marrying into citizenship and comfort. Luis is showing signs of breaking bad, skipping school to hang with a neighborhood gang. Carlos must take him away from this, and when a slim chance arises, he's willing to risk deportation to do it.
What sounds like a typical ethnic melodrama becomes something special in A Better Life, one of the finest films of 2011 so far.
Chris Weitz's movie reminds me of last year's Winter's Bone, with its mesmerizing immersion into an overlooked culture and gut-tightening suspense. Stakes rise and rifts widen for Carlos (Demian Bichir) and Luis (Jose Julian), during an east L.A. odyssey to reclaim their American dream, in this case a stolen pickup truck.
The truck is supposed to be their way out of the barrio, purchased with money Carlos saved and more he had to borrow. He'll run his own gardening business, and pray nobody asks him for a driver's license. Then it's gone, in a terrifically constructed sequence starting with swelling pride and ending with an adrenaline crash. The scene comes from nowhere and leads everywhere Hollywood seldom goes.
While Carlos and Luis play amateur detectives, Weitz follows them to the vibrant heart of Latino culture in America, from day laborers seeking drive-by job offers to a flashy nightclub where the thief works. From apartments where undocumented immigrants practically sleep on top of each other, to a charros, an inner-city rodeo bursting with life.
It's like discovering a foreign country inside our borders, with even squalor beautifully filmed by Javier Aguirresarobe. Weitz puts faces on immigration statistics, and to his and screenwriter Eric Eason's credit they're not all sympathetic. A Better Life is a remarkably honest take on a hot-button topic, noting the migrating criminal element involved, and also well-meaning people like Carlos. The final, inevitable shot will break your heart or boil your blood, but it happens every day.
The perfect cast is anchored by Bichir, a veteran of Mexican telenovelas and Mary-Louise Parker's lover for a season of Weeds. The weight of Carlos' world shows on his rugged face, even with rare half-smiles. This is a masterfully understated performance that should be remembered during awards season. As hopefully everyone involved with A Better Life will be, too.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.