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Jacqueline Monahan's Movie Reviews

A Better Life

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  4_Chicks_Small Jacqueline Monahan

Jacqueline  Monahan

Las Vegas Round The Clock
Jacqueline Monahan is an educator for the GEAR UP program at UNLV.
She is also an entertainment reporter for
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A Better Life

Who doesn’t want one?  The American Dream is alive and well, even for those who can’t legally call this country their home.  The film offers a window into the lives of illegal immigrants and their families in East L.A. and is a decidedly unglamorous look at the obstacles on the mean streets they must travel.

They’ve entered the country with the help of “coyotes” who lead expeditions across the Rio Grande and into the deadly desert.  The undocumented share in none of the wealth of the U.S. and perform menial and manual labor to either send money back home or improve current family situations.  Many have had children born here, automatic U.S. citizens, while they are not – a recipe for inevitable conflict and separation.  Their children attend schools that look more like prisons and require a continual police presence.

Without citizenship, they work clandestinely, without driver’s licenses, birth certificates, credit cards, or social security numbers.  All must scrounge for a living that could be called more of an existence than a life.

The film centers on Carlos Saldana (Demian Bichir) and his 14-year-old son Luis (Jose Julian).  There is no mother in this nuclear family, just a hardworking father and his teenage son, living in a rundown house made a bit more charming by Carlos’ landscaping skills.

Luis’ future looks bleak.  His best friend wants them both to get “jumped into” a gang, a ritual that entails a brutal beating as its initiation.  The muscled, heavily tattooed members live lives full of violence and danger on a brutal, one-way path to a dead-end, crime-filled life – the very path Luis’ father wants him to avoid.

Carlos is a landscaper/gardener for wealthy Angelinos, working out of his friend Belasco’s truck.  Belasco (Joaquin Cosio) is retiring and wants Carlos to take over the business with its built-in clientele.  With a loan from his sister Anita (Dolores Heredia) Carlos becomes a proud, hopeful entrepreneur – for just one day.  That’s a long as it takes for his truck to be stolen.

The bulk of the film follows Carlos and Luis as they try to reclaim the truck, with all of their dreams firmly attached to it.  The police can’t be involved so Carlos must be his own detective.  Father and son come to understand each other a little more throughout the ordeal.  Happily ever after takes a detour after that.

Demian Bichir carries the emotional weight of the film on his shoulders, by virtue of a very expressive face; mostly, it reflects a great sadness.  Sometimes it radiates hope.  Always there is a quiet integrity that courts the viewer to be on his character’s side, even as he breaks the law.  That is Bichir’s skill and it’s put to great use here.

Jose Julian plays both sides of a conflicted teen with a believable nonchalance that can juggle familial devotion, aggression, street smarts, and tenderness into a bittersweet portrayal as understated as Bichir’s.

Director Chris Weitz (About a Boy) offers up a thoughtful and straightforward tale that illustrates hope, determination and desperation in equal measure.  Adapted by screenwriter Eric Eason (Manito) from a Roger L. Simon story, the script allows for plenty of non-verbal interplay between the characters.  When they do speak, they mean what they say, and the film comes across as an authentic, slice-of-life, with all of its surprises and imperfections.

A Better Life gives us a tour of the underground lives of undocumented workers in the U.S. with all of its complicated challenges.  Weitz isn’t saying their problems aren’t their fault; he’s simply conveying a cinematic motivation that’s universally understood:  a parent’s love for his child.

Is there a better reason than that?

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