A Better Life (USA, 2011)

Directed by: Chris Weitz. I had to see this movie for semi-professional reasons, but I’m glad I did. It struck me initially as maybe a bit sentimental, a bit simplistic, but the well of emotion it draws from is well-earned in my opinion. Simply setting up a story like this, it’s a story that folks like me could stand to see a bit more of—what’s it like for a Mexican father trying to do right, raise his son properly, in extremely delicate and antagonistic circumstances. Come to think of it, the only other story of this nature that I’ve seen was Ken Loach’s Bread and Roses, which I remember thinking at the time was a good movie, but it starred Adrien Brody with dreadlocks as a Latino guy, and the lows were extremely low, full of explosive emotion, lots of improvised yelling about selling yourself for prostitution to stay alive, etc. All very important stuff, but like a lot of Loach, it’s a touch too much beat-you-over-the-head. And normally I’d say “well what’s the alternative?”, but when you see this movie, you realize that this movie is the alternative, and maybe it’s a touch more effective actually. This movie presents the threat—the danger of the son falling into gang life, being forced to do monstrous things and kind of turn himself into a monster, but it doesn’t get that far. And he isn’t saved by a white teacher or anything like that, he’s saved by the love of his father, who would do anything for him, including break the law, go to prison, get deported, and sneak back in. There are no real villains here (unlike the monstrous George Lopez in the Loach film), the gang community is fairly peripheral, which was a nice surprise. The poor idiot who steals the truck isn’t a villain—he’s just trying to get money to help his family back home too. And maybe since I brought up Loach, there might be Loach-ites out there who would criticize this film for not stating explicitly what this non-personalized, generalized set of economic and social antagonisms are—capitalism, imperialism, racism, corporate exploitation, etc. And it’s true, this film doesn’t take an explicit stance, but in a way I appreciate that in this context. In this world, these characters, this father just trying to play by the rules and live the good American life so his son can have, forgive me, a better life than he had, I feel like all of that is much more believable, much more congruent to real people in the real world than Adrien Brody in dreadlocks yelling about socialism on a megaphone. Even though, fair, Bread and Roses was based on real events and this one is not, I’d hazard to guess the average person on the street, the average poor immigrant trying to work and get ahead, experiences a fairly apolitical life, at least at the daily subjective level. To them, it’s a day-to-day survival game, and from their perspective, things probably look a lot closer to A Better Life than to the Loach film, that’s all I mean. But again, my knowledge of the experiences of Mexican-Americans is almost entirely from these two movies, so bear that in mind.

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