It shouldn’t be a consideration while watching “A Better Life” that it came into being as a form of payback for Chris Weitz, who last directed “Twilight: New Moon” for Summit Entertainment and was rewarded with a greenlight for that all-too-rare creature these days – the studio film for adults. But it has to be since it isn’t just the filmmaker who’s allowed to enjoy telling a story closer to his own heart, but the audience who benefits the most.
If “A Better Life” has a fault, it may be that it isn’t adult enough, that its story of an illegal immigrant (Demian Bichir) whose been toiling out as a gardener on the lawns of the rich in Los Angeles to make ends meet is a bit too simple, though that would be ignoring its elegance. Carlos, the gardener, is beyond reproach, though life has been unquestionably unfair to him. His wife passed away, leaving him to take care their now-teenage son Luis (José Julián), while the lawyer who promised him immigration papers has left him broke. Things begin to look up when his boss offers Carlos his truck, so he can retire to a farm, but it’ll come at a cost of $12,000, which would be unthinkable except for a possible loan from his sister, who can also ill afford it.
Through it all, Bichir is never any less stoic than Gregory Peck, nor is Carlos any less principled than Moses, with obstacle after obstacle testing his resolve in such succession that “A Better Life” would strain credibility if it weren’t so tender and well-executed. In some ways, a remake of Vittorio De Sica’s “Bicycle Thieves” reimagined as a thriller, the film takes off once Carlos is joined by Luis after the former is robbed and must track down the thief, an exercise that leads to the fringes of South Central and brings the father and son together to a proximity they haven’t shared since the boy was an infant. Luis, all but orphaned by his father’s endless days at work, has gravitated towards the gangs that rule his school without actually joining one, but now is at the age where he must either be with them or against them.
Aided by a soaring score from Alexandre Desplat (“The Tree of Life”), Weitz elevates the story to near-epic levels, imagining Los Angeles as a land vast enough for ample opportunity and endless swaths of treacherous terrain. After once proving his strength at capturing an unorthodox father-son relationship in “About a Boy,” Weitz’s real achievement with “A Better Life” is teasing out the suspense of not only Carlos and Luis’ fractured relationship, but of the journey that they’re on together that’s fraught with all the uncertainty of being in a place they never can really call home. Every time they speak to a stranger, there’s the possibility for misinterpretation and every encounter with a police officer is a chance to be deported.
Even if the story itself is broad, streamlined for maximized emotional potency as it was in the days of De Sica, “A Better Life” is rich enough with detail to be immune to false moments, whether it’s between Bichir and Julián, whose characters gradually let their guard down as they feel each other out, or in the scenes that push the mystery forward through crowded apartments, chop shops and rodeos. With its story of struggle, “A Better Life” may not entirely live up to its title in a literal sense, but it’s a better movie than we’ve come to expect.
“A Better Life” opens in limited release on June 24th.