If ever there was a performance deserving of accolades plugged into a movie that in spite of its good intentions doesn't quite rise to the level for which it yearns, it's Oscar nominee Demián Bichir's expressive and humane work in Chris Weitz's drama "A Better Life." Bichir is Carlos, an illegal alien up from south of the border, uneducated, determined to provide for his young son Luis (José Julián) and who in the very first moments of the movie we realize sleeps beneath a thin blanket on the living room sofa all so Luis can have the tiny home's lone bedroom. This is characterization to the highest degree.
He works as a gardener's assistant, landscaping expansive and scenic California yards. His boss Blasco (Joaquín Cosio) explains he plans to sell his truck and return home to Mexico, thus he offers to sell the vehicle to Carlos as an opportunity to continue the business and perhaps make an even - ah? - better life for himself. After acquiring the necessary money from his kindly sister (Dolores Heredia) he does indeed purchase the truck and, in turn, all the tools and all the landscaping jobs.
The film is at its best in these early scenes, melding a relaxed pace with a distinct tension as we see Carlos go about his endless daily routine with an amazing and unforced dignity even as he knows at any second the little that he has could all so easily slip away. And that's why he is at first hesitant to buy the truck. No license, no papers, what if something happens? Of course, it's a chance that must be taken, and the warm pride that encapsulates his face when he pulls up at his son's school with a gift is a moment of subdued marvelousness. Alas, the truck is not merely a symbol of "the American dream", it is also a plot device and, thus, within that very first day of purchase, as drama dictates, it is stolen.
There is quite a bit of Italian neo-realism at work here with less-than-subtle nods to the famed "Bicyle Thief", a father and son on a crusade to track down that which rightfully belongs to them, traversing their way from the Latino neighborhoods they inhabit to the frightful den of, yes, South Central and back again. Credit must go to screenwriter Eric Eason for refusing to use this set-up as an opportunity to preach politically, eschewing long-winded diatribes on America's immigration policy and, even more thankfully, not taking the obvious route for which he seems to be angling throughout in having young Luis cave in to the frightful gang culture that forever surrounds him.
By not scaling these heights "A Better Life" never gets out of control, but even so there still must be scenes of Carlos and Luis scaling barbed-wire fences, swelling music to occasionally choose our emotions for us and Candy Cane lines such as: "Good for you." "No, good for us." (Head in hands.) But despite those rigid mechanics, Bichir invests you so much in his understandable desperation that he truly transforms into one of those cinematic characters for whom, as they say, you root. He's not asking anyone to root for him, mind you, and his rock solid principles are not something gifted to him from a noble mountain top, they are a teaching tool for his son.
While the end will likely leave a certain sort of viewer up in arms and calling for heads, he/she will likely miss how the film has built to it by character and, thereby, eclipsing all - ah? - pesky borders and recalling the film's opening and how Carlos gave Luis their home's lone room. The child comes first. It brings to mind a certain word...universal.