Oscar-nominee ‘A Better Life’

Courtesy of vanityfair.com.

Courtesy of vanityfair.com.

Courtesy of vanityfair.com.

Every now and then, we see films that we so profoundly feel on an emotional level that they cause us to question our own criticisms and objections to the film. Are we being too critical? Too cynical? “A Better Life” is one such film. It utterly destroyed me emotionally, brought me to tears. Yet, making an audience cry does not a great film make.

Released in 2011 and recently on DVD, “A Better Life” is a candid drama about an immigrant gardener in L.A. who struggles to provide a life for his son that exceeds his own. The gardener, Carlos, is played by Academy Award nominee Demian Bichir.

Rarely does the Academy award nominations to foreign actors. When it does, the nominations are often to stars like Javier Bardem. So, when Bichir’s name was announced alongside Brad Pitt’s and George Clooney’s, many asked “who?” And while Bichir was never a threat to win, he belonged among the nominees easily.

Bichir is the heart and soul of the film, and arguably, the only thing memorable and worth talking about. He is so at home in Carlos’s skin. His hesitations and facial expressions convey volumes.

The same cannot be said about the rest of the film. In fact, the contrary can. Much of “A Better Life” is pantomimed obnoxiously via clunkly clichéd dialogue and unrealistic circumstances. I usually do not complain about a film’s allegiance to realism, but “A Better Life” commits itself so thoroughly to the modern political climate, shouting at you that “this exact thing is happening to real people right now!” So any deviation from realism loses its viewers quickly.

Unfortunately this happens a lot. There are about as many coincidences in this film as there are in “Crash.” So many contrived plot obstacles are quickly resolved by circumstance that they immediately render themselves irrelevant. The whole film does really. After all, it imagines an L.A. that seems to be entirely racially-integrated save the Mexican immigrant community.

In the end, “A Better Life” feels like a patched together and forced parable about immigration. Because of its lackluster quality, then, the emotions it successfully evokes feel a bit stolen or exploited. I think of a film like “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.” What makes “A Better Life” a better film, though, is its anchoring in Bichir’s powerful performance.

2.5/4