Much as with Holocaust movies, it occasionally seems like there are no new ways to approach the story of Mexican immigrants illegally working in America. Undocumented workers are a contentious subject, and films about them tend to follow established lines of compromise, acknowledging that they’re breaking laws, then compensating by framing them as longsuffering, saintly martyrs. With A Better Life, director Chris Weitz (coming back from the big-budget hells of The Golden Compass and The Twilight Saga: New Moon) and screenwriter Eric Eason find a new filter for those familiar signifiers by essentially remaking Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 classic Bicycle Thieves.
In the process, they drop a lot of De Sica’s neo-realist focus on detail, while losing none of the strong performances or heartbreaking suffering. Demián Bichir stars as an overburdened single father working as a landscaper in east L.A., struggling to support his teenage son (José Julián), a troubled boy close to falling in with the local gangs. Bichir’s boss is about to retire, which mandates a choice: buy the boss’ truck and go into business for himself, or return to hustling for jobs among the local day-work hopefuls hanging out at the local plant nursery. After an emotional struggle—he doesn’t have a driver’s license or insurance, and would rather keep his head down and “stay invisible” than take risks—Bichir borrows money to buy the truck. But his need is so great, the truck is so precious, and tragedy is so obviously waiting in the wings that the film almost chokes under its own foreboding.
A Better Life leans too heavily on sad music, broad symbols, and weighty speeches to tell its story; it’s more effective when it lets images speak in place of words. All Bichir’s monologues about his hopes for his son’s future aren’t as moving as his expressive face when he endures Julián’s frequent bouts of adolescent contempt, or his unremarked-upon habit of sleeping on the living-room couch so Julián can have a room and a bed to himself. Still, Bichir and Julián both give remarkable performances, bringing across all the dichotomies that define their relationship—anger vs. acceptance, selfishness vs. compassion, mutual frustration vs. mutual love—in a more convincing way than the script seems to allow. As the impatient, disgruntled Julián comes to see how much worse his life could be, and realizes how much of his father’s sense of humor and honor he’s taken for granted, A Better Life becomes increasingly powerful over time. It’s a familiar story retold in the form of another familiar story, but powerfully expressed emotions always feel fresh and vital in the moment, no matter how many times they’ve been expressed before.