Director Chris Weitz takes us on a journey through the rougher side of the American dream in a powerful drama about love and ambition and the search for something better, writes Stephen Bourke.

Mexican actor Demian Bichir plays Carlos Galindo, an illegal immigrant living in Los Angeles with his teenage son Luis (José Julián).

Desperate to avoid a return to begging for work outside a builder’s providers with his fellow wetbacks, he borrows money to buy his boss’s pickup truck and tools. But when the truck is stolen, Carlos is forced to get it back — without the help of the police.

Weitz’s credits as both director and writer are varied. Weitz went from directing the gross-out teen comedy American Pie to being nominated for an Oscar for About a Boy. More recently he has worked on fantasy adaptations – The Twilight Saga: New Moon and The Golden Compass. In A Better Life, Weitz shows us the grittier side of the American dream from the point of view of those trying to make it.

And that’s what this movie feels like: a dream. As Carlos and Luis travel through Los Angeles in search of their stolen pickup truck, we catch these glimpses of Americana throughout – the dog walkers, the men in suits brawling outside a bar, and the Stars and Stripes waving just out of focus in the background. We feel completely immersed as we take this journey with them. A Better Life has a setting as compelling as its story.

This isn’t a film about a clash of cultures, but about the mixing pot that is America. We see Mexican-American culture in all its forms, from the gang-bangers that threaten to suck Luis into a life of crime to scenes filmed at a real-life Mexican-style rodeo.

Bichir and Julián give powerful performances. As the gruff, hardworking father caring for his stroppy teenage son, Bichir is both convincing and understated. It never feels clichéd; rather we feel for Carlos as he tries to quell Luis’s hot-headedness in their hunt for the thief, and we feel for Luis as he sees his father broken by the system. As Luis, Julián makes his début alongside Bechir, a veteran of film and Shakespearean acting in Mexico and Latin America.

The haunting spectre of immigration authorities and the violence of the gang culture Carlos tries to shield his son from are a powerful backdrop to the story. You might expect something preachy in a movie about the plight of an illegal immigrant, but A Better Life is anything but. Weitz shows us America’s service entrance as a stage for a much more universal story. The story of a man with all the odds stacked against him taking a chance to make a better life is something we can all relate to.

It’s a wonderful story of hope and hope dashed and the love of a father for his son, and it’s bound to be a classic.

Originally published on Campus.ie

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