One of the big surprise nominees for the Best Actor Oscar this year was Demian Bichir for A Better Life. He’s been making films and television shows for decades, most notably the film Che and his recurring role on Showtime’s Weeds.
In A Better Life, he stars as Carlos Galindo a gardener and illegal immigrant from Mexico who is trying to support his 14 year-old son Luis. Times are tough for Carlos who must compete with fellow immigrants for work. When his buddy Blasco offers to sell him his truck, Carlos sees the possibility of taking on his own business with pride and enthusiasm. All the while young Luis lives on the verge of becoming a member of a street gang. Carlos wants nothing more than the American dream. Then just as his new business is starting his main means for work and success is suddenly pulled out from under him.What follows plays out like a contemporary version of the classic Italian neo-realist film The Bicycle Thief. Carlos must focus his energies on reclaiming what is rightly his. How far must he go to find a better life? What laws might have to be broken?
The narrative is pretty effective at what it sets out to do, if it does come across as a bit predictable. The set-up also develops somewhat longer than needed and there is a certain lack of desperation that make the stakes feel less great here than they were in The Bicycle Thief. Still, what stands out is the growing bond between father and son as the situation becomes direr. As part of this, there is a realistic arc to Luis that nicely underscores his maturation.
The film also explores illegal immigration and the complications brought about by families fractured by varying legal citizenships. Carlos calls America his home and desires the same success as others living in the country. Luis was born in the U.S. and feels about America as many teens do, initially taking its possibilities for granted.
Bichir is very good in the role, although I would say it is his final scenes that earned him his Oscar nomination. Generally the film is gritty yet also warm and sentimental. It’s a worthy portrait of how the American Dream has crossed the borders in contemporary society. A Better Life is currently available for online streaming and on DVD.