**1/2 (out of four)
Luis (Jose Julian) is an ungrateful, troublemaking, 14-year-old punk, but his undocumented single dad Carlos (Demian Bichir) still works his tail off to provide for his son. Carlos gets desperate when his plan to buy a truck and expand a landscaping business backfires; Luis' best money-making idea, on the other hand, is to "jack an old lady on the street."
The buzz: This isn't the sort of movie you'd expect director Chris Weitz ("About A Boy") to do as a follow-up to the mediocre "The Golden Compass" and horrible "New Moon." Frequently, but not always, stylistic left turns like this are a good thing.
The verdict: This is a rarely seen side of the immigration debate—you know, the perspective of the people actually facing possible deportation. When Carlos and Luis interact, "A Better Life" depicts a lot about the complex relationship between this father and his son who snaps at him, "Go mow some lawns." The film would have been smart to treat every scene with the same stripped-down, raw honesty. Instead, "A Better Life" relies on so many predictable plot points that it treats its story as an inevitability rather than a specific cautionary tale. Surely we don't need to see Carlos standing up to a gang member or driving a truck action movie-style through a gate to grasp his resolve. This good man (perfectly acted by Bichir) will do anything to protect his child, but the film mostly refuses to stray outside bluntly obvious narrative conveniences.
Did you know? A gang member tells Luis' friend that he shouldn't join a gang because he'll end up dead or in jail—but, hey, ask again next week and maybe the answer will be different. Thanks for looking out for everyone's best interest, criminals.
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