I recently had a chance to see A Better Life, the new film from director Chris Weitz that a lot of critics have already predicted will be a major contender for all sorts of awards at the end of the year.
A few critics have said that A Better Life is similar to the classic Italian neorealist film Bicycle Thieves. Look, let’s be honest. A Better Life is Bicycle Thieves except Rome has been replaced by Los Angeles and the Italian father-and-son are now an Illegal immigrant and his son (played by Demian Birchir and Jose Julian, both of whom give award-worthy performances). While Julian struggles to resist the temptation to get involved with gangs, Birchir struggles to pay the bills as a gardener. Eventually, Birchir manages to purchase a truck even though he knows that just by driving, he’s increasing the risk of being caught and deported back to Mexico. However, after only one day, the truck is stolen. Unable (because of their own status as illegal aliens) to turn to the police, Birchir and Julian embark on an increasingly dangerous quest through the shadows of Los Angeles, searching for their truck and everything that it represents (i.e., the better life of the title).
As a director, Chris Weitz takes a low-key, rather subdued approach to the material. While the cinematography emphasizes the idea of Los Angeles being both seductive and remote at the same time, Weitz focuses our attention on Birchir’s worn, world-weary face. Each line and wrinkle on that face tells us a different story of struggle and, ultimately, hope for a better life and a better future. Weitz slips up a little during the film’s final act. Some of the dialogue gets a bit too heavy-handed, despite the skill with which Bircher and Julian deliver it. It’s in these scenes that we suddenly start to see the hand of the filmmakers and suddenly, we’re no longer watching the story of a proud man sacrificing so his son can have a better life. Instead, we’re suddenly reminded that we’re watching a movie.
I have to admit that, as time has passed, I’ve become a bit less enthusiastic about A Better Life. It’s one of those films that carries a lot of power when you first see it but then, once you’ve had some time to think about it, it becomes obvious that you’re not so much reacting to what the film is as much as what you wish the film was. When I first saw A Better Life, much like a lot of critics, I thought I was seeing one of the best films of 2011. In retrospect, A Better Life is one of the better films (so far) of 2011 but hardly the best. What it is ultimately is a well-made film that struggles under the weight of its own good intentions.
Still, as I watched A Better Life, I couldn’t help but remember a crowd-pleasing scene from last year’s The Kids Are All Right. If you’ll remember, that’s the film where Julianne Moore is a professional landscaper who deals with the guilt of having an affair with Mark Ruffalo by yelling at, abusing, and eventually firing Luis, the Mexican who works for her. You may remember Moore snapping, “What are you looking at!?” and Luis replying with, “I am not looking at anything, that is just my face.” The line, of course, is delivered in a thick accent and the scene where Moore actually does fire him is largely played for laughs. We don’t see Luis again for the rest of the movie though Moore does get a throw-away line about how she wishes she hadn’t fired him (probably because she now has to do all dangerous physical labor herself).
Now. I have to admit that scene bothered me when I saw it and it has bothered me since. I doubt that the liberal audiences that flocked to see The Kids Are All Right would have found it as hilarious if Julianne Moore had unfairly fired an African-American character who spoke in exaggerated ebonics. It was as if the audience members were so exhausted from patting themselves on the back for watching a movie that pretended to be about lesbians that they were relieved to have an ethnic stereotype to laugh at.
To me, it’s because of scenes like that one that we will always need films like A Better Life.