Dir. Chris Weitz
(2011, PG-13, 97 min)

A Better Life is the Italian neorealist classic The Bicycle Thief transplanted to contemporary Los Angeles, where Carlos (Demián Bichir), an undocumented laborer struggling to raise a rebellious teenage son, finally gets a chance to better himself with the purchase of a friend’s pickup truck. The vehicle’s importance to him cannot be overstated; he reluctantly accepts money from his sister – no less than her life savings – to put all his eggs in this basket. But a day after buying it, it’s stolen by another laborer whom Carlos showed kindness to.

What works about the screenplay, as in the Italian film, is how it uses a single, simple event – the theft of the truck in this case, as opposed to the theft of a bicycle – to illuminate a particular way of life. As Carlos and his son search for the truck, they encounter more of the city’s poor immigrants, who are the living machinery that keep the city running behind the scenes – the landscapers behind the finely manicured lawns, the dishwashers behind the nightclubs. My greatest concern about the film was that it would be simplistic and overly sentimental, a comforting Hallmark card about the noble poor, but though director Chris Weitz doesn’t plumb any great new depths in the material, neither does he blatantly manipulate us, and with the subtly dignified performance of Bichir he convinces us of Carlos’s goodness without bludgeoning us with virtue.

What doesn’t quite work is Carlos’s son, Luis (José Julián), who doesn’t understand how much his father has sacrificed for him and instead admires local gang members. Luis is spoiled and ignorant; he doesn’t get it, because the screenplay requires him not to get it so he can get it later in a moving reconciliation. Unfortunately, his chronic inability – or unwillingness – to recognize the love of his father, in spite of all evidence, makes him difficult to sympathize with, to the point where I started to root against him. Let him join the gang members – a group of tattooed thugs right out of central casting – and leave his father to find his truck and carve out a better life of his own.