Disclaimer: This writer is not associated with “A Better Life” or Demian Bichir. This writer is not a member of the Screen Actors Guild or the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. He is just an individual who enjoyed the film.
In the wake of Demian Bichir’s surprise Best Actor SAG and Oscar nominations, I decided to Netflix A Better Life, the immigrant drama for which he was recognized.
I had first heard about the feature several months ago. Though I was interested in the story, I was a bit put-off by the gang aspect. I had assumed it would be more about him trying to keep his son out of gangs. I had envisioned him putting himself in danger by facing the gang members and going toe-to-toe with them for the sake of his son.
Though I never knowingly grew up around it, the concept of gangs has always been uncomfortable for me. Still, I always understood that it was a reality for a lot of young people. It is easy to think that they could just say no, but that is not always the case. There may be options but sometimes they just don’t see them – especially if they aren’t encouraged to do so and are pushed in that particular direction.
I remember when I first started working with the youth department of the church I joined in late 2001 shortly after moving to LA. The church was located on Adams and LaBrea, just south of the 10 Freeway. It was so strange to be in my early twenties and having these teenagers educate me about whose territory was this gang’s, whose territory was that gang’s and which territories were neutral.
It unnerved me that this was something they were and probably had to be aware of. The possibility of them becoming involved in one was disconcerting. Outside of attempting to be some semblance of a friend, confidante or role model, what could I say? What would I do if I was a teenager and this was my reality? What would I do as a grown man if I came face-to-face with gang members as my father once did when I was all of two-years-old?
Such are the things that run through my mind when I hear about gangs, read about gangs or watch gang activity unfold in a movie or a TV show.
A Better Life was far more than being just about gangs. While there was an aspect of that to the movie, the overarching theme was the love of a father for his son and the lengths he’ll go to make sure that son has access to more opportunities than he had.
The movie starts with Carlos (Bichir), an illegal immigrant, waking up for another full day of work as a gardener. He wakes his son Luis (Jose Julian) up for school and then gets picked up by his boss and friend Blasco (Joaquin Cosio).
Blasco plans to retire so he offers to sell Carlos his truck and tools so that Carlos can be establish his own business. Because of the expense and the risk, Carlos is reluctant. He eventually relents and asks his sister Anita (Dolores Heredia), a fellow immigrant who married a rich man, for a loan – which she eventually provides to Carlos.
Carlos then buys Blasco’s truck. In the same way that he joined Blasco’s business six years prior, Carlos picks up a day worker named Santiago (Carlos Linares) who had previously shown him a kindness while they were waiting to be picked up for a job.
Carlos and Santiago report for work and Carlos climbs up a tall palm tree that needs to be pruned. He leaves behind his coat, cell phone and keys. While high up in the tree, Carlos calls down to Santiago only to discover that his keys and cell phone are missing. He notices Santiago running toward his truck. Carlos yells after him and quickly climbs down the tree, reaching the truck just as Santiago speeds off.
The look of confusion, frustration and panic that registered on Carlos’ face was both chilling and heartbreaking. All I could think of was what I would or could do if I were faced with being absolutely broke.
A drunken and exhausted Carlos shows up at home several hours later and passes out. The next morning he gets up and gets dressed to start looking for the truck. Against his wishes, Luis joins him.
They take a bus to the spot where Carlos first picked up Santiago and ask if anyone knows him. One of the day workers tells them that he knows where Santiago lives but since he doesn’t know the address, can take them there for fifty dollars. Carlos agrees.
They reach Santiago’s apartment complex but don’t know the exact unit. Luis calls Carlos’ cell phone. They follow the sound of the ring and knock on the door. Carlos asks for Santiago and is allowed in. Luis storms in behind him and starts looking around.
Luis finds several squatters living in each room of the apartment. One of them informs Carlos that Santiago found a place closer to his job and moved out. The man realizes that the phone he purchased from Santiago the day before belongs to Carlos and hands it over to him. Carlos offers to pay him the forty bucks he lost in the deal but Luis protests. The man agrees and refuses to take the money.
Carlos notices a picture on the wall of Santiago with two men in front of the nightclub/restaurant where he works as a dishwasher. Carlos takes the picture and leaves.
With the establishment not set to open for another two-and-a-half hours, Carlos takes Luis to a nearby festival he had taken him to several times when he was younger. They then return to the restaurant with the intent of stealing the truck back. Instead, Carlos talks to the bouncer, asks for Santiago and is allowed in.
Carlos walks through the nightclub and into the kitchen where he eventually finds Santiago, who recognizes him, throws a load of glassware at him and runs out the back door into the parking lot. Santiago runs past Luis, who chases after him, tackles him into the ground, searches for the keys and starts to beat him up. Carlos runs over and pulls Luis off of Santiago.
Luis shows Carlos a piece of paper he pulled out of Santiago’s pocket showing a $3000 transaction to Mexico. Luis starts kicking Santiago again and Carlos chastises him. Angry and confused, Luis runs off.
The next morning, Carlos shows up at the home of Luis’s best friend Facundo (Bobby Soto), where he figured Luis must have stayed the night, and asks for Luis. Luis comes to the door and Carlos explains that Santiago told him where he sold the truck. Carlos asks if Luis wants to come with him but Luis declines. A short exchange between him and Facundo provides him a glimpse of his future. Luis changes his mind and follows his father, who is waiting at a nearby bus stop.
Later that night, the two of them appear at a chop shop. Carlos climbs over the barbed wire fence to look for the truck. Luis, on the outside perimeter of the yard, spots the truck first and attempts to climb the fence but gets stuck on the barbed wire. Carlos finds the truck and sees Luis stuck. He climbs up, cuts him loose and brings him down with him. Carlos examines the truck and recognizes the tools. A dog hears them, starts barking and runs over to them. They quickly get into the truck and turn on the engine. The dog jumps onto the hood and they realize there’s no windshield. The chop shop workers run over after as Carlos pulls out and the dog jumps off. A game of chicken follows between Carlos and a security guard who is blocking the locked entrance.
An exhilarated Luis and a relieved Carlos start to drive home. They notice a police car and pass by nervously. When the lights flash, Luis pleads with Carlos to at least try and outrun them so they can stay together since they’re all they’ve got.
Carlos pulls over.
Carlos is brought into a detention center where he will be held until deportation. A lawyer explains the options to him -- neither of them good.
Anita picks up Luis and takes her home to live with her. As she lays down the ground rules, Luis runs away.
After hearing about this from Anita, Carlos calls the house and leaves a voicemail in hopes that Luis will check it and come visit him before he’s deported back to Mexico.
Facundo comes to the house with a member of a gang who had expressed interest in having Luis join. Luis doesn’t answer their persistent knocking and they walk away. Luis starts to pack a bag.
Anita arrives with Luis just as Carlos is being taken to the bus. He and Luis are allowed a few minutes to say goodbye. In a touching monologue worth watching more than once, Carlos explains to Luis why he had him – an answer to a question asked of him earlier by Luis in the heat of anger.
Carlos asks Luis to promise that he’ll stay with Anita and do better than he was able to. When time expires, Luis begs Carlos to promise that he’ll be back.
Luis and Anita watch as Carlos, with the bag Luis packed for him, is taken away.
Four months later, Luis is seen playing soccer as he liked to do before he started getting into fights, skipping school and hanging with the wrong crowd.
We then see Carlos with a group of immigrants being escorted across the border.
A Better Life had shades of the Will Smith-starrer The Pursuit of Happyness in that kept you wondering what else could go wrong for this man who simply wants to provide a good life for his son.
No matter what side of the immigration issue you fall on, you could’t help but hope that the police officer would look the other way. You couldn’t help but hope that the lawyer could work something out so that Luis wouldn’t be separated from Carlos. You couldn’t help but be saddened when Carlos was deported. And you couldn’t help but smile a little bit when you saw Carlos attempting to cross back over the border. We don’t know if he made it or if he was reunited with his son, but in this particular case you certainly hope so.
A Better Life is all that Carlos wanted to provide for his son. He slept on the living room couch and gave his son the bedroom. He rose early, worked all day and came home late. Everyday. In the short amount of time he had with Luis, he tried to instill a work ethic. Carlos didn’t just tell Luis to stay out of gangs, he embodied the man he’d like Luis to become who saw the alternatives. You saw this when he tried to give the forty dollars to the man who bought his stolen cell phone from Santiago. You saw this when he pulled Luis off of Santiago and told him that was not how they were going to handle things. And you saw this when he tried to fulfill a promise he didn’t even make by crossing back over the border to try and reunite with his son.
This is what makes A Better Life such a stellar film. It’s not a cautionary tale about gangs. You hope people can pick up on that subtlety, but it’s about the lengths a loving father will go to ensure options and opportunities for his son. Demian Bichir brought that to the screen beautifully.
Which is why it would have been awesome if he had won the SAG Award last night – although the eventual winner, the ridiculously handsome Jean Dujardin, was also very good in The Artist.
Photo credits: Jose Julian and Demian Bichir of "A Better Life" from the film's Facebook fan page.
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