"The Bicycle Thief," directed by Vittorio De Sica and written by Cesare Zavattini in 1948, long considered one of the classic films of Italian neo-realism, tells the story of a poor man and his son. Their search for a stolen bicycle the father desperately needs for work becomes a journey that explores poverty and desperation. "A Better Life" from the always surprising director Chris Weitz employs the same strategy to open up the lives of a Mexican gardener in East Los Angeles and his Americanized son.
Their search for a truck becomes an odyssey of powerlessness and anxiety that creates greater understanding between father and son, who are virtually unaware of each other’s lives. Meanwhile the movie tracks the hard reality of what it means to be without documents in American society. By keeping things simple and understated, Weitz and screenwriter Eric Eason (working from a Roger L. Simon story) have crafted a little gem where humanity is observed with compassion, not condescension.
You don’t make a film like this expecting the kind of grosses Weitz’s films such as New Moon or "About a Boy" generated. But with targeted marketing and promotions, Summit Entertainment could have a modest box-office hit in "A Better Life" following its L.A. Film Festival premiere. Who knows — it may even pick up a nomination or award at year’s end.
Veteran Mexican actor Demian Bichir plays Carlos, an illegal immigrant whose wife long ago abandoned him to raise their young son by himself. While the two haven’t exactly prospered, they get by in borderline poverty with Luis (José Julián) going to school — sometimes — and more or less staying out of trouble with gangs— so far — while Carlos scrapes together money as a helper to a gardener with steady clients.
Only now his boss wants to return to Mexico and offers to sell him the truck with all its gardening equipment. Carlos’ problem, as it has always been, is he has no driver’s license. Any stop by a cop will quickly confirm his undocumented status. Plus, he doesn’t begin to have the money to buy the truck.
Hopes get cruelly raised, then dashed when his sister loans Carlos enough money to purchase the truck only for it to disappear the first day on the job. His search for the thief, with Luis a reluctant companion, takes them into gang territory and into contact with strangers with possible ulterior motivations. It’s an odyssey that examines many aspects of the human condition, law enforcement, street predators, recklessness and the meaning of family.
There is, in fact, an entire movie going on in the background when its characters travel through the megalopolis that is L.A. by foot, bus or the truck itself: police activity, political rallies, gangbangers, guys looking for work and women bringing home meager supplies are picked up by Weitz’s observant camera.
What is unusual here for an American movie, whether from the studios or indie filmmakers, is its willingness to let the movie speak for itself. There is a rich life on display here but the makers trust a viewer to discover it for himself.
The relationship between father and son rests at times as much on what they don’t say as what they do. The two males are very different from one another and their different upbringings only partly account for this. Carlos’ deeds more than his words impact his son but not always in positive ways.
Luis is American enough to see violence as the easy remedy; Carlos long ago learned the pitfalls of “easy.” As the search for the thief and then the truck gets them deeper into troubling areas and tension mounts, the two winds up seeing each other’s point of view. But such understanding may come too late to save the family.
Fine and seldom seen L.A. locations, peerless cinematography by Spanish d.p. Javier Aguirresarobe, a perceptive production designer from Missy Stewart and an unobtrusive, Latin-flavored score from the tireless Alexandre Desplat let the moods and environment of the movie seep into a viewer’s consciousness. Nothing here is overt; everything, the enigmas and contradictions of life, is subtle and simply portrayed.