A Better Life Too Lightweight to Highlight Immigrant Plight

A Better Life (2011)

Directed by Chris Weitz

McLaughlin Films, 98 mins. PG-13

* *

Actor Demián Bichir garnered a Best Actor nomination for his lead in A Better Life. He’s decent in the role, but though this film’s heart is in the right place, it should have been made for the Lifetime channel not the multiplex. It’s what I would call a knee-jerk liberal film in that it draws more upon sentimentality than deep analysis.

Bichir plays Carlos Zalinda, an illegal Mexican immigrant in Los Angeles, where there’s always plenty of service work to be done for rich Anglos who ask no questions as long as the price is right. Carlos is a gardener and the sole support for his teenaged son Luis (José Julían). Carlos has lived in the United States for many years and has bought into a version of the American dream that rests on the assumption that a man who works hard, doesn’t rock the boat, and stays invisible can do well enough to provide for his son (who was born in the States and is, therefore, a citizen). Carlos does his best to dissuade his son from joining a gang. What he can’t do is hold a driver’s license, a Social Security card, or expect strong advocacy in the legal system. So he keeps his head down and when an opportunity to go into business for himself occurs, he seizes it, even though he’s aware of the risks,

You can probably write the rest of the movie from here. Of course the business deal won’t go well. Of course Carlos is going to run afoul of immigration. Of course there will be a tearful encounter with Luis and of course there will be a speech that will help Luis get back on track. Along the way some other things occur, but there’s not much depth to any of them. At just 98 minutes the film can’t get into much complexity, hence it seeks to tug on heartstrings instead. At times it feels like a Latin-flavored Terms of Endearment. Fans of weepies will probably be moved, and the film will doubtless become a favorite among advocates of immigration reform.

Alas, from where I sit, A Better Life is simply too lightweight to be a statement film. It reduces the plight of illegal immigrants to platitudes and vague constructs of “fairness.” I don’t wish to sound coldhearted, but this movie felt like a moral dilemma exercise used with junior high school kids to teach values clarification skills. I’m sure that there are thousands of real-life Carlos Zalindas out there who deserve consideration. But can we make it serious consideration? Bichir didn’t deserve a Best Actor nod and A Better Life deserves no more than a video view on a night in which other options are slim.

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