A BETTER LIFE – Watch It At Home:  Earnest Isn’t Enough
Impending disaster hangs over every early scene of Chris Weitz’s new film A BETTER LIFE.  As soon as we’re introduced to Carlos Galindo (Demian Bichir) and learn that he’s an illegal immigrant, eking out a life as a gardener in Los Angeles as he doggedly tries to support his sullen 14-year old son Luis (Jose Julian), while doing whatever he can to avoid being arrested or deported, we know Something Bad is going to happen.  When Carlos exerts himself to the utmost and uses all his hard-earned resources to buy a used truck that will allow him to have his own small business and, he believes, finally improve his son’s life, it’s just a matter of time.  Sure enough, Something Bad happens, and then Something Worse, and the movie ends up exactly where we figured it would from the start.

There’s no joy in saying unkind things about a movie like A Better Life, which was made with heartfelt commitment and a fair amount of skill.  Weitz, coming off a hit Twilight movie, no doubt could have chosen to direct any number of big-budget Hollywood projects, but instead he opted to work on a no-frills, no-star, independent film.  Bichir and Julian head a fine ensemble cast, and the movie has been beautifully shot (by Javier Aguirresorobe, whose credits include Vicky Cristina Barcelona and The Road) and scored (by Alexandre Deplat).  The pace is fluid, and there’s some excitement in the middle section of the story, when father and son try to cope with the Something Bad.
Ultimately, though, the movie is content to tell a predictable story in a mostly unnuanced way.  Eric Eason’s script (from a story by Roger L. Simon), is so strongly influenced by The Bicycle Thief that at times it feels like an unoffical remake, but it falls short even at that when it depicts Carlos as a paragon of paternal goodness and wisdom, with little shading.  Luis is made a kid tempted by the dark side, but only so before the movie ends, he can appreciate the greatness of his dad.  For all the care and serious effort that’s gone into A Better Life, it doesn’t add up to more than a particularly gritty Hallmark Hall of Fame; it’s as though Weitz and Eason feared political incorrectness if they suggested that their characters were merely human.
A Better Life isn’t a great movie, but it has emotional impact, and if properly sold it could reach an audience.  Summit has decided to start its campaign with a very small (4 theatre) art house run, the kind of release that requires better reviews than the film is getting; it’s in danger of disappearing entirely if the studio can’t forget about its awards-season strategy and rethink its approach.  Otherwise, it’ll be the kind of picture people find on cable TV, and wonder why they never heard of it.

(A BETTER LIFE – Summit – 98 minutes – PG 13 – Director:  Chris Weitz – Script:  Eric Eason – Cast:  Demian Bichir, Jose Julian, Joaquin Cosio – Limited Release)

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."