In the early days of Italian neo- Realism, there was this little classic called Bicycle Thieves, a movie about a father struggling to support his adoring son in post-war Italy. When his bike is stolen, his ability to make a living is threatened. In desperation, the father does something that makes the kid see him in a new light: He steals a bike.
A Better Life, based on a story by the writer of Enemies: A Love Story, has pretenses of being the Mexican- American Bicycle Thieves. It's about an illegal immigrant who is a single dad struggling to raise a teenage son, hoping to provide a better life for him than the landscaping work he's done since slipping across the border into the United States. He buys a truck, it gets stolen, and the son comes to see his father in a new light.
"You want to end up like me?" Carlos (Demián Bichir) lectures Luis (José Julián), wishing the kid would buckle down at school, hang with better friends and aim at higher goals. But the kid isn't hearing it. He's running with the wrong crowd, trying to get into a gang and treating his father with contempt.
"Go mow some lawns," he says.
Carlos does off-the-books menial labor for rich cheapskates. He can see the American dream. He just can't have it. He has lived his American life "keeping my head down, trying to stay invisible," lest he run afoul of Immigration. Luis is a punk, letting his gang-connected girlfriend pick fights for him that earn the attention of the cops.
Worry over his son, ambition and nagging by the retiring landscaper who uses him as his assistant causes Carlos to take his first big risk since sneaking into America. He buys the truck and takes over that little two-man landscaping operation. Out of compassion, he hires the wrong assistant and loses the truck.
Until this moment, A Better Life is a maudlin and almost patronizing affair. But this film, directed by Chris Weitz (About a Boy), struggles out of the swamp of good intentions from here on out, as the tearful dad hunts down his truck with the help of a son who has yet to inherit dad's humanity. Their quest is a small one, but it's epic nonetheless. Find the thief, track down the truck, get back to the spot on the ladder where they have a chance to climb out of poverty. Get to know each other. Bichir is particularly good at building sympathy, one scene at a time.
Once you get past the clichéd Spanglish dialogue and sentimental tone of the early acts, A Better Life settles down into something both involving and moving. Their quest becomes our quest, and their hopes become our hopes. That's a pretty nifty trick for a movie coming out in the current political immigration environment, a film whose "heroic illegal immigrant" narrative has become overly familiar of late.