I grew up in a shady part of the San Fernando Valley. During that time in my life, I wasn’t truly aware of how much my mother struggled to supply for me as best as she could. I had no father around so my grandmother stepped into the role of the other parent. I wouldn’t necessarily say my neighborhood was ghetto, because when I do use those terms people usually roll their eyes at me since I am after all referring to The Valley (like gag me with a spoon!).
I have these memories of my mother driving me home from elementary school. One day, our block was closed down due to some crazy dude with a shotgun holding the entire apartment building hostage. That building was across the street from where I lived. Another time, we couldn’t get home due to the police having pulled over some guy in our co-op’s access road because he had a few kilos of cocaine in the trunk of his car. When I was 13 years old, I saw a guy get shot in the drive thru of Jack In The Box next door.
This is where I grew up.
By the time I was old enough to go to high school, my mother decided to send me to a Preparatory School nowhere near where I lived. See, at that time, an old teacher of her’s who had still taught at her alma mater (which was right down the street from my home at the time) had been gunned down in front of the school. So given the circumstances of my surroundings, she went out of her way to make sure I received a better experience at a school roughly 10 miles away. This was one of her many attempts at putting me on the path to chances at a better life.
I remember, since times were tough for us, I had to take the RTD (not the MTA) to school every day. Two buses, both ways. It was on those trips that I really got a taste of all types of people. I got hit up regularly by the local gang kids. I watched out the windows as the neighborhoods got progressively nicer one way, only to spiral downwards each day on the way home. And I remember a group of four gardeners who would be on the bus when I would get on in the morning and exit off Kester every day. They smelled pretty bad. I remember equating it to the likes of a combination of hot garbage and chalk. Every day, during that part of the trip, I’d train myself to get on the bus only breathing through my mouth and not allowing myself to take in any air through my nose so I didn’t have to smell them.
It was only months later, after I had fully gotten used to this trek and made friends with the bus driver, that I began to realize I was disgusted by them because of their odor. But that realization soon led to another one: that I was being an idiot. Every day, these men trekked on this ugly ass bus to join a group of other Mexican gentlemen on a street corner and hope that it was their lucky day…that they’d be picked up for a day of work so they could get some sort of wages. It was then that I started having an unspoken respect for these men. Whether documented or not, they were there every day with a drive to work all in the pursuit of that thing that people still call “The American Dream”.
These memories came flooding back to me the other night when I sat down and finally watched my SAG screener of A Better Life. The film follows Carlos Galindo, a gardener in East L.A. who does his best to keep his son Luis out of the troubles that exist in the neighborhood while ultimately trying to give him a better life.
The movie was a rough one to watch for me because the characters and situations displayed in the film reminded me of so many people and so many experiences from my past. My main reason for watching the film was Demian Bichir’s performance as Carlos. And I must say, his performance here is so viscerally layered and moving that I’m quite hopeful he wins The Oscar this year. But aside from focusing on his performance, the film as a whole is one that sort of sneaks up on you in a sense that if I wasn’t so tired when I watched it, I may have gotten a little weepy.
What was the most powerful aspect of the movie for me, was the evolving relationship between Carlos and Luis. At the beginning, they are complete strangers, keeping a troubled past involving Luis’s mom unspoken. Carlos’ pursuit to constantly work leaves Luis alone and up to his own devices. Angry, abandoned, and alone…A Better Life shows the simple ingredients of what would drive a kid towards the family like atmosphere of gangs. However, through one turn of events involving a truck, Carlos and Luis’s relationship begins to change. And finally, once we get to the end of the film after all the depressing events happen as if peeling one layer after another off of one fucked up onion, you’re left sitting there applauding the mended relationship amidst all the sadness.
Chris Weitz does a great job at keeping the film about the core characters involved in the story. He could have taken this film in any number of political directions given the current back and forth in this country about illegal immigration. Instead, he focuses on the characters’ relationships and the overall conflict in the film. Poverty leads to desperation, and you feel that desperation mixed with Carlos’ drive to supply for his son, no matter what.
A Better Life is a depressing and cathartic movie about the pursuit of one’s dream and consequences of one’s actions. But at its heart, A Better Life explores the importance, and ultimately, the impact of the bond between father and son.