As A Better Life begins, Carlos Galindo (Demián Bichir) describes himself. An undocumented Mexican immigrant and single father in East L.A., he explains: “I keep my head down. I try to stay invisible.” He works constantly, barely aware of what time passing, starting and ending each identical day in an exhausted heap on his couch. His teenaged son Luis (José Julián) sleeps on the bed in their home’s only other room.
When his boss Blasco (Joaquín Cosio) wants to sell Carlos his business—meaning the pickup truck, gardening equipment, and client list—he initially resists. Blasco insists he’s selling him “the American Dream,” an opportunity to move his son to a better neighborhood and school. It’s easy to understand why Carlos takes him up on his offer when we see Luis’ school, which looks more like a prison than anything else.
Teetering on the edge between childhood and adulthood, Luis is being pulled by two forces vying to shape his future: the traditional family values of his father and the allure of power and acceptance offered by gangbanger Valdez (Richard Cabral). He’s also caught between American and Mexican cultures. Born in the U.S., Luis struggles to understand Spanish and has long forgotten that he used to enjoy the rodeo and norteño music. His disdain for his father is palpable.
It seems unlikely that father and son will ever work their way back to each other. But the process is accelerated when Carlos explains his decision to buy the truck, promising Luis he will have a better life. When the truck is stolen, Luis sees his father’s desperation, and insists on helping him recover it. In doing so, he sees his complicity in marginalizing his own people, including his father. It’s clear that Carlos is not only invisible to the community and the authorities, but he has become invisible to his son as well. When Luis mocks a group of day laborers as “ho-ing themselves out,” his father comes down on him hard—“That was me.” It’s an instruction in compassion, but also a reminder of the urgency of getting the truck back: without it, Carlos is back to the day labor line, hoping against hope to be paid next to nothing for a few hours’ hard work.
This is far from Luis’ only misreading. He considers himself streetwise and thinks his father is simple and unworldly. He quickly learns otherwise, as he sees how his father has sacrificed his own dignity and sense of self for him. As they talk with a series of people who’ve seen or know the thief, Luis comes to see that brash, trash-talking threats are useless, only frightening individuals who feel beleaguered as a matter of course.
But if Carlos shows understanding of this community, he has also lost sight of his son. The meticulous expertise with which he nurtures the plants in his customers’ and his own yard only emphasizes his absence from Luis’s life. The boy doesn’t interpret his father’s constant working as an expression of love (as Carlos sees it), but as abandonment. As they begin to look more carefully at one another, Luis asks Carlos, “Why did you have me?” His answer, “To have something to live for,” teaches them both something about what it means to be men.
As emotionally wrenching as Carlos’ specific situation may be, A Better Life also keeps the broader framework in view. Though director Chris Weitz claims, “We don’t really have a political agenda,” it’s impossible not to see what’s visible in scene after scene—the differences between Carlos’ life and his clients’, the ignorance of U.S. citizens who take their privilege for granted. The film includes some heavy-handed imagery: rich white people traipsing into a high-end Mexican restaurant while avoiding eye-contact with actual Mexicans, a chop shop called “Patriot Auto,” cold ICE agents. A Better Life also lapses into that annoying post-9/11 tactic of elevating the American flag to near character status, appearing repeatedly to signify either Carlos’ longing or his sense of rejection.
His dislocation raises questions concerning the definition of “home.” Blasco has papers, but can’t wait to get home to Mexico. A dozen undocumented immigrants have another sense of home, a small apartment where they sleep in shifts, working multiple jobs so they can send most of their money to the families they left behind. Carlos and Luis share a tiny house, but the gang leader Vasquez’s apartment is more of a home, where he smiles proudly as his nieces sing karaoke and his sister cooks. Even as A Better Life suggests that home might be different for everyone, when it comes to Carlos, there is only one answer.