By: Henry J. Fromage (Three Beers) -
When your movie gets compared to Vittorio de Sica’s hands-down masterpiece The Bicycle Thieves, you’re getting high praise indeed. Sure, there are obvious plot similarities (an impoverished father struggles to care for his son, pinning his hopes on a vehicle that will give them the means to survive, and then seeing it snatched away. Deep moral quandaries and staggering humanity to follow). However, the fact that that last sentence carries over into A Better Life as well is what at least partially earns the comparison.
From the director of Twilight, no less
To decide to take a page from one of the greatest films of all time is incredibly ambitious, and a toast is deserved for how director Chris Weitz and the screenwriters pull it off. They update the story from postwarItalyto illegal immigrants inSouthern California, substituting a gardener’s truck fro the bicycle, and age the son, Luis, (Jose Julian) to a more problematic late teenager.
This opens up themes of immigration, of course, as well as education, gang activity, poverty, adolescence, and culture among others. The script juggles these admirably, but it’s the acting that brings them home, particularly Demian Bichir as Carlos, the father.
You may recognize him from a slightly different role
He portrays a truly, innately good man, and relates a deep, sad past almost entirely through his eyes. His performance is one of the few best of the year, although it will likely be forgotten come Oscar time. The supporting acting is for the most part* quite good as well, and you know a film’s handled character development well when you start yelling at the screen when something bad happens.
Bitch, he got a garden shears!
Unfortunately, not all of the acting and characterization is top-notch. The Latino gang-members are far from it, and on top of that don’t add a lot that we haven’t seen before. Turning them into unseen antagonists probably would have better emphasized the menace and influence of gangs among Latin youth.
Take a swig for how much of a dick Luis is. There are reasons he doesn’t respect his father and acts like a douche most of the time (mostly to wring out an extra bit of sympathy for his pops). Julian yields an axe where he should have used a scalpel, and that along takes this out of The Bicycle Thieves territory.
It may not be an instant classic, but A Better Life has a devastating human interest story well worth watching and Bichir is one to keep an eye on.
Bonus Drinking Game
Take a Drink: whenever someone says truck or troca
Take a Drink: whenever Luis disrespects his father
Drink a Shot: each time Carlos gets screwed over