Review: A Better Life

daniel cohen reviews the new film starring Demian Bichir …

Plot: An illegal immigrant (Demián Bichir) in East L.A. invests everything he has into a new truck and gardening business that will take him and his son (José Julián) to a better life, but an unforeseen event may change their entire future forever.

Sometimes a movie asks your lead actor to carry the entire film on their shoulders, and Demián Bichir does just that in A Better Life. Bichir is pretty outstanding as Carlos, a father who works his ass off to provide for his kid. Director Chris Weitz does a good job of expressing how overworked this guy is, but it’s written all over Bichir’s face. It’s that much more painful when his son (Luis) treats him condescendingly, not appreciating his father one bit.

The relationship between Carlos and Luis is the heart of the film. The development of their bond drives the story. José Julián also gives a great performance as Luis. We slowly get to know this kid as we really aren’t sure what’s going to happen to him. Will he join a gang, respect his father in the end — he’s kind of a mystery. Julián does a good job of expressing a variety of emotions, especially when he and Bichir are on screen together. Unfortunately these are the only noteworthy characters in the film yet because they work so well together though, it’s all we need.

There’s one moment where Carlos is especially dead tired as lies on his couch surrounded by countless gardening tools and lawn equipment — he is so determined to take him and his son into a better neighborhood. Bichir’s acting tells you everything you need to know about Carlos in this one scene.

Unfortunately, the film isn’t paced very well. It’s very slow, especially in the beginning. Carlos’ boss (Joaquin Cosio) is about to retire and tries to get him to buy the truck so he can take over his business. Carlos refuses at first, but we know he’s going to end up buying it eventually. It just takes forever to get there.

The film is painfully predictable all the way through. Even in the bigger moments, I was able to call plot points five minutes before they happened. There isn’t a lot of suspense. And the scenes that should be suspenseful aren’t directed with a lot of excitement and are fairly rushed.

There’s a scene in the middle of the film where Carlos and Luis go to a rodeo that really slows down the movie. Eventually it leads into a conversation brought on by Luis that could have made for a really interesting back and forth discussion, but it’s glossed over with pretty ‘ho-hum’ dialogue. In fact, the dialogue in general is pretty bland. Even in the end when Bichir delivers a great emotional climax, the dialogue could have been a lot more impactful.

Everything is pretty run of the mill in terms of story. Despite all that though, Carlos’ desire to get closer with his son makes the film worth seeing, and gave me the emotional end it wanted. While the movie may be mediocre in many areas, it’s at its strongest where it counts.

Rating: 7 out of 10 (Good)

Daniel Cohen is the hard-boiled Film Editor for the Pop Break. Besides reviews, Daniel writes box office predictions, Gotham reviews and Oscar coverage. He can also be found on the Breakcast. If Daniel was sprayed by Scarecrow’s fear toxin, it would be watching Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen on a non-stop loop.


  1. I don’t agree with your analysis. I think that the pacing is part of the strength of the movie. Hollywood movies are so manipulative and forceful in pushing the viewers to emotion and to the preconceived moments that we all know are coming. In this movie, it moved at a pace that parallels life. Carlos didn’t really know his teen son well. Many parents feel this way in the teen years. We trust that our kids are learning morals and following our leads. Luis was at the turning point that so many teens get to. The rodeo was symbolic of many ‘family’ events where the teen is embarrassed and turned off by the parental joy and need for connection with the child. But the child also takes it all in. It also gave Anglo Americans a view of Latino/Latina American cultural traditions in the confines of the U.S. context. The pacing was refreshing. These actors were brilliant. The direction let us participate and take from them what we wanted. It wasn’t predictable what Luis would do. We still don’t know for sure. We don’t know what will happen to Carlos. I LOVED the ending. It got to my heart and as an Angeleno, made my heart ache for our disparate lives. No blame…..The question of why life brings us to this kind of way (borders/economic disparity/separation/isolation/ is a question that haunts me.