A Better Life was a surprising nominee for this year’s Academy Awards. I don’t think anyone was expecting Demian Birchir to be a contender for Best Actor. Still A Better Life deserved the nod and would have been a better choice for Best Picture than some of the other current nominees.
The concept behind A Better Life is very simple. Director Chris Weitz decides not to tell the story of how an illegal immigrant got to America or how he survived when he first arrived, but rather his desire to achieve his American dream. Carlos has been living in America for most of his adulthood, working as a gardener to put food on the table for his teenage son, Luis. Carlos is a devoted father to his only son, a troubled teen at risk of being drafted by his neighborhood gang. Carlos wants to give everything to his son that he never had growing up. When an offer arrives from his boss to buy the company van and gradually start his own business, Carlos realizes he must make a difficult decision. He can choose to buy the van, which would bring countless opportunities to get his son out of the ghetto and give him the best life possible. On the other hand, this could bring dire consequences. Carlos doesn’t have a license, so if caught driving he could be deported back to Mexico. Carlos could deny the offer, but he knows his son is slipping away, and he will do anything to make sure his will doesn’t fall into the wrong hands.
A Better Life is special because of it’s focus on a father and son relationship. Viewers will admire both characters for their courage and empathy. Both men are tough on the outside, battling their own personal hardships. But when their shells are cracked, their emotions surface and they unite as family. What makes Carlos a great character and Birchir’s performance more commendable is that the director’s intention is not to evoke sympathy in the viewers. Rather we are rooting for him throughout his journey in hopes that he succeeds. Carlos demonstrates courage and true fatherly qualities. His choice to sacrifice everything he created in America to ensure his son a hopeful future shows how selfless he is. Although Carlos is the protagonist, we become equally familiar with his son Luis. The film would not have been quite as moving had we not seen Luis change from an affected teen to an understanding young man. Without this transformation, Carlos’ sacrifice would have useless.
The only thing that stands in the way of A Better Life being a fantastic film is its screenplay. Unfortunately, the dialogue between the teens seems a little forced, attempting to suggest the nature of their gang status by having the young characters use street lingo. It doesn’t feel real, and doesn’t add to these character’s image for the matter. The point that Luis’ friends have been influenced by the gangs in their neighborhood doesn’t need to be overemphasized by ghetto language.
A Better Life isn’t groundbreaking, but viewers are taken on an emotional journey that is worthwhile. A Better Life doesn’t emphasize the hardships of illegal immigrants, but instead shows the meaning of family and sacrifice. Through great acting and strong characters, audiences will be inspired by the honorable protagonists.