Like many fathers, Carlos Galindo has many challenges, doubts and dreams.
Because he's undocumented, he can't get a driver's license or insurance and sticks to work that's relegated to society's background: gardening and landscaping. Because he's unlicensed and insecure, he doesn't want to buy the truck and tools offered to him by his boss. But because he dreams of a better life for his 14-year-old son Luis, he pushes aside his doubts and takes on the challenge of borrowing the money from his sister to buy the truck and becoming the master of his own fate...maybe.
"A Better Life" is a gripping and emotional movie -- sad and maddening, exhilarating and hopeful -- all at once.
It's an indie film directed by Chris Weitz, who got his start as a writer on "Fantasy Island" and went on to write, produce and/or direct "American Pie," "About A Boy," "The Golden Compass," and "Twilight: New Moon", and reportedly took on the film as a tribute to his Mexican grandmother and his Cuban/Mexican American wife.
It stars Dami?ín Bichir, a noted Mexican actor who was on two season of "Weeds" and a cast of mostly lesser-known actors. Perhaps most recognizable is someone whose face isn't even seen: radio personality Eddie "Piol?¡n" Sotelo, heard from radios throughout the movie.
No spoilers here: Much has been already written, talked about, commented and blogged about the movie. It's well-shot and acted and carries a meaningful message that's already causing some controversy.
While it shows glimpses of Latino life seen in many mainstream and indie movies -- rows of barrio shops and houses, crowded and chaotic schools, gang clickas, desperate day laborers and the quiet desperation that poverty brings -- it also goes into places unfamiliar to many who've live in L.A., even for a long time.
The scene showing a colorful depiction of charro culture -- that's Mexican-style horsemanship -- with the roping, riding and regal demeanor of the men and women who participate in the sport, is a fitting backdrop as Carlos tries to reconnect his son Luis (played by Jos?® Juli?ín) with his childhood roots and memories.
Gang life, a staple of many Latino films shot in L.A., is depicted with some unexpected humanity. Luis, who's flirting with jumping in with the encouragement of his best friend as well as his girlfriend, is caught between its lure and excitement and the disapproval of his father. A scene at his girlfriend's small apartment shows guys with hard-won tattoos cheering on the musical antics of a couple small girls.
The landscape of Carlos Gaiindo's face, however, is most memorable: eyes changing from empty and vacant to energized and volcanic; hard lines etched on his face from time spent outdoors and the emotional earthquakes of his life; and rivers of tears springing from failure, doubt and ultimately, hope.
There will be other movies made about the immigrant experience, no doubt. By focusing on a father who wants nothing but the best for his son, despite his inexperience, disappointments and limitations, "A Better Life" brings a nuanced perspective to what is ultimately a story about crossing borders: between two countries, two ways of life and two men ...father and son.