Weitz seems more comfortable piloting this character-driven two-hander than he ever did helming a Hollywood blockbuster. Carlos and Luis Galindo (Demián Bichir and José Julián) are the father and son at the centre of A Better Life's moving tale. With Carlos's wife having left some years ago, they share a small LA home - dad toiling away in gardens and sleeping on the sofa while son skips school and, when he does turn up, promptly gets himself suspended. The fragile bond between Carlos and Luis solidifies when the father's truck and gardening equipment is swiped by Santiago (Carlos Linares). With Carlos's means of making a living gone, he reluctantly sets out with Luis to track down the vehicle. A story point reminiscent of the '40s Italian classic Bicycle Thieves.
A Better Life's immigration subject matter may draw comparisons with the likes of Crash and Crossing Over, but it avoids the sanctimonious and preachy tone of those films. Bichir, who played Fidel Castro in Steven Soderbergh's Che and Weeds' Esteben Reyes, is a quiet revelation in the lead role. With his worn-down and weary face, he stoically trudges through the daily grind. Every moment of minor euphoria is quickly doused with a set-back, making him all-the-more of a sympathetic character. Julián, in his first film role, is also excellent as the teenager who wrestles with family loyalty and the allure of gang camaraderie.
A story that could easily sink into gooey sentimentality takes a heartbreaking turn towards the end, with Carlos running afoul of the law and forced to make a decision that will have massive repercussions on his mended relationship with his son. Eric Eason's script wisely veers away from making A Better Life an 'issues' movie, instead foregrounding the lead characters' struggles and presenting a less glamorous side of the American Dream through the eyes of outsiders. It's a film that's refreshingly direct, eschewing narrative cross-cutting and time-jumps to tell its story with graceful simplicity. At times this pared-down manner lends it the vibe and feel of a television movie, but the heartfelt performances and compelling story make A Better Life a worthy alternative to the loud and boisterous blockbusters invading multiplexes this summer.