Summer isn't usually the season for small American movies, but it would be a pity if A Better Life's only audience was the blockbuster intolerant. After making two big budget movies in a row, The Twilight Saga: New Moon and The Golden Compass director Chris Weitz goes 360° with a moving, bilingual drama - one that you may be hearing a bit more about come awards season.
Mexican gardener Carlos Galindo (Bichir - recently seen in Irish cinemas in The Runway), has lived as an illegal in Los Angeles for over 15 years. From dawn 'til dusk he does backbreaking (and sometimes dangerous) work outside the homes of the city's rich. He then comes home, sleeps on a couch for a few hours and does it all again in the hope that his US-born teenage son Luis (Julián) won't have to live the same way. They pass each other for a few minutes each day - an awkward culture clash with each unaware of what the other is doing.
When Carlos' boss announces his retirement, he offers him the chance to buy his pick-up, and so keep the clients they've built up over the years. For Carlos, the pick-up is more than a way to keep working: it's the American Dream. Find the money for it and there's the chance to move to a better area, where Luis can make some new friends and perhaps even work alongside Carlos when school allows. And so begins a cycle of events that sees a good deed punished, a cross-LA odyssey, a man and boy coming to a new understanding and a desperate attempt to salvage a shared future.
Every year, some un-hyped movies come along with breakout performances so powerful that watching them again or engaging in a word of mouth campaign seem like the right thing to do. This is one of them. Bichir is superb as Carlos, and with a bit of luck (and the right people watching) his work here will get the Oscar nomination it deserves - some viewers will think that in a perfect world he'd be making the speech. Channelling the power of good dads the world over, Bichir remains low-key, bringing out the best in newcomer Julián and providing plenty of lump-in-the-throat moments as two different generations with wildly different life experiences have the opportunity to meet as equals.
Using a bilingual crew and testing his mettle with 69 different locations, director Weitz really captures the energy of the barrios and the challenges faced by those living under the radar. Hopefully in the US his film will play to more than just those who hail from south of the border, because he mixes the personal and the political very well. And besides, it's not often you get to leave a cinema wiser and more thankful.
A great film for fathers and sons - mothers and daughters, too.