I see this movie, and I think of all the students and the families I've been fortunate to work beside these past nine years. I think of all the kids I know who aren't in this country with papers or those students who were born in this country, but whose parents were not. I think of the time I used the expression "illegal alien" during my first year of teaching in Lynwood, CA, and I was coolly informed by a (white) teacher that many of his family members were these "aliens." I think of students worried about going to college because of their citizenship status, about families living in converted garages because they cannot afford anything better, about the intoxicating allure of gangs, about mothers who work for unfair wages.
In other words, I think about myself when it comes to immigration, and I myopically view events at first glance through a self-reflexive lens. Which really is pure narcissism, the kind that reeks of hitting a situational lottery. Because I don't have to hide my identity, I don't have to worry about deportation, I don't have to worry about losing everything during a simple traffic stop, the way Carlos (Damian Bechir) worries when driving around in the pick-up truck he purchased to provide a livelihood for him and his son, Luis (Jose Julian). A Better Life, directed by Chris Weitz, tells a simple, universal story of a father's love for his son, but it carries it around on the back of a more compelling, frustrating, and terrifying figure: our country's immigration policies. Weitz and Eric Eason, the screenwriter, do an admirable job of letting the milieu provide a strong backbone for their treatise, and the situations concocted (Carlos has his truck stolen, so he and Luis embark on a journey around (mostly) East LA to recover it) whisper rather than scream their message about the unfair conditions under which so many undocumented laborers toil.
However, the strongest support is provided by Belchir. I've never seen the man in any other roles, but the highest compliment I can pay him is I now want to see more of what he's done and I look forward to his future projects. Belchir's handsome face, creased with years of experience, his eyes expressive pools of constant worry, tells the story as well as any of the dialogue. I often wished the film had less conversational pieces, since the moments where Belchir is simply allowed to be (a shot of him planting shrubbery at an ocean-front mansion lingers) provide the most power. He's working on another level than Julian and the other adolescent actors, who often recite their dialogue like just that: actors. They don't embody their characters the same as Belchir, and I often found myself vexed by their artificial performances. If you want to see tremendous naturalistic performances by teenagers, rent Raising Victor Vargas.
The dilemmas presented in A Better Life call attention to the very real lives of the millions of undocumented workers currently living here in the United States as well as the untold numbers preparing to make the journey North (as well as from other countries). Unfair wages, educational inequity, inhumane working/living conditions, and more corrode any kind of moral high ground the US stakes claim to. The entire thematic topic of immigration deserves a kind of Wire-like treatment since it encompasses so many strands of the American fabric: education, economics, culture, language, politics, religion, and more. A Better Life does not delve much into these systemic quagmires; it's position is more simplistic, but no less powerful: to humanize those men and women who work quietly in the shadows desiring nothing more than a better life for themselves and their families. These people don't deserve our pity or our hatred; they deserve basic human rights. They deserve justice.