Written by Markus Robinson, Edited by Nicole Ashland
Markus Rating: 2 out of 5 Stars
Rated PG-13 for some violence, language and brief drug use
Now playing at Century 20 Oakridge Mall in San Jose California:
An intriguing premise examining a very powerful and very relevant topic in today’s America, unfortunately handled with kid gloves. And what I mean by “kid gloves” is, and let me know if this sounds racist, “A Better Life” plays out like a film about Mexican immigrants, that was neither written nor directed by anybody of color or of Mexican descent. Gregory Nava, director Chris Weitz is not; I am just saying. Anyways, this film stars, Demian Bichir, who is most notability known for his spot on portrayal of Fidel Castro in Steven Soderbergh’s “Che”, giving an equally engaging performance as a single father, who is also an illegal immigrant, as well as a painfully amateurish performance from Jose Julian, who does his best not to fumble over his own lines. This overly simplified story follows an illegal immigrant from Mexico, who is raising his child in East L.A., in an attempt at giving his child “a better life”. This storyline (as simple as it sounds) had all the makings of a touching, gritty, powerful story of survival against all odds, but director Chris Weitz and writer Eric Eason do this film a disservice, by giving the audience a (seemingly edited) PG-13 version of a rated R premise. Yes, there are scenes of somewhat high emotions and you do feel bad for the main characters plight, BUT the overall movie is not simply gritty enough to seem realistic at all. Staged in an East L.A. where nobody gets shot, where there are limited instances of racial tensions and where deportation back to Mexico doesn’t seem all that bad, “A Better Life”, would have been better suited as an after school special on Univision.
The problem isn’t the acting so much as it is the result of a poorly written script-by-numbers from Easton. There are no surprises here, every time the story seems to be going to a darker and more realistic place, it stops short, delving into some overly sentimental speech about hope and the love for ones family, which may not sound so bad, but happens so often that when the scene should arise where audiences are actually supposed to feel something, the situation comes off as more corny than serious. Many themes such as marrying someone for a green card, gang life in East L.A. and the strain on an immigrant’s relationships when he comes to America are all touched on here, but never in prolonged formats. Instead the audience is relentlessly beat over the head, over and over again, with some overwhelmingly hackneyed ideas, that we have all seen regurgitated on screen before, of the hope and love, which frankly become quite boring after a while. But an even more egregious flaw than the actual poorly written storyline, may be the noticeably outlandish writing of the children’s dialogue. Throughout the film, the audience must listen to children that speak in such cold hearted, vulgar terms, that at MANY TIMES unnaturally distract from the overall narrative and flow of the film. But that aspect is not all the writers fault. I hate to be overly critical of child acting, but “A Better Life” serves up such a smorgasbord of bad child acting, lead by that of Julian, the likes of which no movie critic could resist ripping to shreds.
Let me take some time out to say something positive. There are some interesting choices that the director makes visually, near the beginning and end of this film (not to give anything away), that I haven’t seen any film about immigration do, which work really well here. It is just too bad that these (more realistic) scenes are so few and far between.
Final Thought: “A Better Life” is nothing more than a Telenovela; a forgettable made-for-television drama. The strong thematic elements all lead to one sappy, heavy handed, speech after another and any real potential this film had to be something memorable is lost around the half way mark. The lesson learned with this film is, that when making a film about such a heavy subject, such as immigration, one can’t present it in a watered down format! And sadly (as much as I wanted to recommend this film), if you want to see a movie about Mexicans or Mexican Americans in search of the so called “American Dream”, “A Better Life” is not the place to look. In the end, this is a film for people who enjoy the sappiness of a Novella. Tú sabes quién eres. Don’t be ashamed.
Here is a list of films with similar premises (Latin American immigrants (no, not all immigrants are from Mexico! If that is what you think, then READ A BOOK) in search of the American Dream), which are much better than “A Better Life”:
“Under the Same Moon (La misma luna)”
“My Family (Mi Familia)”