A Better Life has more to offer than good intentions: it’s sincere and credible, which is more than I can say about an awful lot of movies. Yet something about it kept me at arm’s length: I felt the filmmakers’ presence instead of losing myself in the story. Is that because, like director Chris Weitz, I am not part of the world he’s depicting but an outsider looking in? Or is it because the trajectory of this melancholy film is so predictable?
Although Eric Eason wrote the screenplay, from a story by Roger L. Simon, the inspiration seems to be Vittorio De Sica’s timeless masterpiece—
— Bicycle Thieves. In that film, a poor man’s livelihood—in a sense, his manhood—is taken away when his bicycle is stolen on the streets of Rome. He and his young son set out to find the culprit. In A Better Life, the protagonist (well played by Damián Bichir) is an illegal immigrant in Los Angeles who works as a gardener and does his best to raise an adolescent son on his own. He’s learned to keep his head down and remain invisible, in order to work in L.A. without his papers. But when he buys his former boss’ truck and gardening equipment he takes a huge gamble, and therein lies the tale. And yes, much of it has to do with the relationship between father and son.
The casting is excellent, and so are the locations, but the inevitability of each step in the story is a major disappointment. A Better Life has so many good ingredients it’s too bad it doesn’t take on a life of its own.