Tackling the all too common situation of illegal US immigration, About A Boy’s Chris Weitz opts for making a film full of good intentions that focuses on the larger issue from a narrower perspective. The result is an effecting, warm and compelling father-son relationship tale about love triumphing over adversity that manages on the whole to avoid the standard Hispanic movie clichés – heartstrings-twanging ending aside – and give a more positive representation of the community living in contemporary LA.
Demián Bichir plays Carlos Galindo, a hardworking and respectful illegal immigrant from Mexico working as a gardener in LA’s wealthier districts while trying to single-handedly raise his teen son, Luis (José Julián). Struggling to steer his son away from gangs and immigration agents, his break into ‘a better life’ to give his son the opportunities he never had leads to tragedy and a real test of his father-son relationship.
However sincere, if predictable Weitz’s film is that follows a similar plot to Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves it’s still prone to melodrama in parts, and relentlessly hammers home the injustices in its characters’ moments of reflection. It’s an interesting affair to get a deep-seated feeling of patriotism from a non-Mexican director, although even his and Eric Eason’s take on Roger L. Simon’s story still feels like ‘outsiders looking in’ in a romantic sense. These moments tend to detract attention away from the more intriguing male relationship core that the story promises, something that the director has proven an expert of portraying in his 2002 film, starring Hugh Grant.
With Bichir’s mesmerising performance, though, the film never fails to be deeply affecting, as Bichir is gracious, proud and determined as Galindo, whatever life throws at him, making him a formidable and moralistic presence of good. It’s his son who, like us, questions why he so gallantly persists in his efforts. Luis represents that fascinating generation of multiculturalism struggling with its own uncertain and ever-evolving identity. Julián is cast well opposite Bichir, and never over dramatises Luis’s reactions. Much like the story, he manages to avoid the pitfalls and inevitable forecast we might come to expect. In this respect, Weitz continually surprises.
Nevertheless, Weitz becomes almost impatient in the latter part, undoing all his hard work in tactfully personalising the situation, by hastily drumming home the key social and political issues, before the poignant final scene appears on screen. It’s left down to his commendable cast to save the day and the film’s finale, which they do, clawing it back from the brink of genre parity. For this reason alone, overall, A Better Life can be remembered as a humble but richly nuanced character study full of compassion.
By Lisa Giles-Keddie
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