A Better Life

So, this movie about an illegal immigrant gardener living in East L.A. has been hanging around the theaters lately and I really wasn’t going to go see it. These things almost always work out the same way, with the good-hearted Latinos being oppressed by the evil gringos or, say, the immigrants teach the repressed white man how to really live.

Meh.

Then @Darcysport mentioned that it was written by Pajamas Media founder Roger Simon.

Meh.

I actually don’t know much about Roger Simon. I remember Althouse mocking him mercilessly when he was recruiting bloggers for PJ Media. That was almost six freaking years ago. So, I guess her estimation that they would flounder didn’t pan out.

Anyway, I think Simon’s shtick is that he’s a Hollywood outsider by choice, due to his political conservatism, which in this town sounds like “no one will hire me”. Not that I have any insight into his career that IMDB doesn’t give.

What I’m getting at is that I wasn’t all that enthusiastic going into this thing, with a story by Simon, directed by Chris Weitz (About A Boy) and screenwriter Eric Eason, and a cast of people you maybe have seen around…places…maybe on street corners…

And?

It’s a solid movie. It’s the sort of movie that people say “Why don’t they make movies like that anymore?” only to have you point out that they do, and that they just watched it, you moron!

Though it has been a while.

Carlos is an illegal, living in L.A. for about 15 years, raising his son, Luis, on his own. He wakes up early, gets driven around in a truck by his boss, and does gardening all over the fair City of Angels. He works hard, lives in a mean little hovel in East L.A. where he tends his own mini-garden. He’s not relating well to his teenage son, who skips school and runs with a bad crowd.

Pretty standard stuff, right?

Carlos’ boss is going to sell the truck and equipment to the highest bidder and take his money to go buy a farm back in Mexico—something he refers to, without irony, as “the American dream”. This puts the pressure on Carlos, since he doesn’t have the money to buy the truck, and doesn’t have the necessary papers to hold on to the truck if he could buy it. (That is, he has no driver’s license and if he gets caught, he’ll get shipped back to Mexico.) If he doesn’t buy it, on the other hand, he’s back out on the curb with the other day laborers. (An interesting and accurate depiction of the various strata of illegal society here.)

Meanwhile, Luis is a snotty, spoiled teenaged brat who disdains his father, disdains the day laborers, hates his own poverty and really has no sense of how bad it could be. He is, at least, smart enough to be running with the gangs, but there’s an attraction, and it doesn’t help that his girlfriend is part of the baddest crime gang in the neighborhood.

Once again, pretty standard stuff, right?

Ah, but it’s character, plot, tension, story arc—all the basics covered here.

And it works. Well.

Why? Because it’s a depiction of a good man, working hard to get ahead—to the live the American Dream—and the forces arrayed against him are formidable but not insurmountable. Demian Bichir plays Carlos, and he’s an excellent everyman.

The whole cast is convincing and authentic feeling, and the (presumably) low budget doesn’t work against it.

You care, but more than that, the movie is always engaging you with narrative “effects” a lot of dramatists avoid: Just because this is a serious drama (some say melodrama) doesn’t mean it can’t have moments of suspense, mystery, action, etc. These enhance the drama, just as drama can enhance those sorts of scenes.

What I’m getting at is that the movie doesn’t take your caring for granted, constantly giving you moments to make you care a little bit more. For Luis’s character, this is critical, because he’s such a tool you feel like slapping him at first. But he gets to have his highs and lows, his moments of glory and, well, inglory, and he evolves as a character.

Given my bent, I’d like to say “This movie shows that socialism (and other forms of big government) ruins everything.” Because to my way of thinking, the Carlos’ of the world are never an immigration problem. If it weren’t for the government offering freebies to illegals and regulating the jobs market so much that they price the native poor out of the jobs immigrants do, I think we’d have a lot less of an issue.

But as much as I’d like to say that’s the message of the movie, I can’t any more than I could say “The problem with immigration, according to the movie, is the gringos oppressing and exploiting the brown peoples.” (Racism, and white people in general, barely make an appearance in the film.)

The point being, the movie is basically politics-free. You can say “Well, that sure is stupid” at various points of the film, but that’s just honest observation. Politics gets into the why (like my preferred “why” mentioned above) and the how to fix, and who’s to blame, which would make for an insufferable film.

The Flower had a little trouble following it with all the subtitles (the movie slips in and out of Spanish frequently) but she liked it. The Boy really liked it. And I did, too. I was glad we went and glad that a movie like this—on many levels—could be made.

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