Anita Casey-Reed
 
 
    
 
Jose Juan, left, and Demian Bichir are shown in a scene from "A Better Life." (Associated Press)
 
 

A man wakes up on his couch, the police sirens audible in the distance. As the day dawns, he climbs into a pickup truck and rides, out of the crowded Los Angeles streets and up to the hillside neighborhoods filled with lush lawns and sparkling mansions. This is Carlos (played by Demian Bichir in his 2012 Oscar-nominated role), an undocumented immigrant trying to raise his child alone with his earnings working for a landscape contractor. "A Better Life" (PG-13) is the story of how he tries to build a home for his family.

Carlos has survived in the U.S. for almost two decades by keeping his head down, going about his own business and staying anonymous. He keeps grinding away each day, telling his adolescent son, Luis (Jose Julian), to study hard and follow the rules. But Luis sees the other neighborhood kids who don't go to school anymore, who suddenly have money for flashy clothes and cars, who don't have anyone telling them what to do. Why should he listen to his father, when his dad obviously didn't understand the way the world really works?

Into this tense situation comes a game-changing opportunity -- Carlos' boss is retiring, and offers to sell his truck, tools and client list to his long-time employee. This could be a chance to succeed, to get Luis into a better school, to no longer have to scramble each day for survival. After scraping up the money through a loan from his sister, Carlos is ready to take control of his destiny ... only to have the vehicle and all of the implements taken from the job site on the very first day. Now, Carlos and Luis must work together to recover the stolen goods before they can be sold off, with no possibility of help from the police.

"A Better Life" is a richly detailed film, where director Chris Weitz (who also directed "About a Boy") show a different side of L.A. We see the backs of restaurants where the dishwashers and busboys gather for breaks, and the apartments crowded with people sleeping in shifts on the floor in order to send more money home to their families. Yet the element that really shines through in this drama is the affection between Carlos and Luis, even when they disagree with each other. I remember the first time I saw this movie, a friend commented how rarely you see a GOOD father-son relationship on screen. "A Better Life" is, at its core, about the fact that home is not where a person is born, or where a person sleeps, but where they can be with the people they love.



 
Anita Casey-Reed is a member of the Cinema 100 Film Society, a volunteer for the Dakota Digital Film Festival and co-host of "Reel Retro" on Dakota Media Access. She lives in Bismarck with her husband and two children.