A Better Life humanizes the struggle of illegal workers

Director Chris Weitz takes a close look at the reality of the American dream

The sequels, remakes and blockbusters of summer always seem to outmuscle soft-spoken, socially relevant films. It's a lot to expect A Better Life, a drama about illegal Mexican immigrants living on the margins of East L.A., to compete with boy wizards or giant alien robots.

Unexpectedly, A Better Life, a movie inspired by real life experience and divisive political issues, turns out to have roots in another movie: The Bicycle Thief. A Better Life's second act pays an elaborate tribute to the 1948 Italian landmark that forever changed how movies strive for realism and depict poverty.

Director Chris Weitz and Manito screenwriter Eric Eason break no new ground with the tenderhearted tale of an ill-fated, undocumented gardener and his troubled son. A Better Life builds on its rote, familiar early scenes of humble blue-collar life to movingly show how the American system can undermine the dreams and family ties of honorable would-be citizens.

Demián Bichir of "Weeds" and Che plays single dad Carlos Galindo, who beautifies the yards and gardens of complacent Los Angelenos. His teenage son Luis (José Julián) frequently skips class at his high school, a grim institution that looks more like a supermax penitentiary than a place for teaching young people. Meanwhile, his father considers buying his employers' truck and gardening equipment, a move that would mean more money, independence and the chance to move his son to a better school. The higher profile would also invite more police attention and risk Carlos' exposure as an illegal. Carlos borrows the money for the truck and, for a while, enjoys being the guy who picks up itinerant workers in front of the hardware store, instead of standing among them.

Disaster strikes the budding business almost immediately, and when the truck goes missing, Luis insists on helping his father find it. A Better Life grows far more engrossing when the sleuthing father and son search for the vehicle on a kind of odyssey of Latino subculture, from taco trucks to rodeos to nightclubs. As Carlos and Luis bond, the son first comes across as brutally hostile to other poor Latinos, but he also pushes his father to stick up for himself rather than passively take "no" for an answer.

Weitz has specialized in such Hollywood fare as American Pie and Twilight: New Moon. A Better Life proves to be the kind of low-budget, high-integrity project that A-list directors insist they'd rather make, but seldom complete. At times, however, the film's good intentions seem overly informed by liberal guilt and condescension.

Bichir occasionally shows some flashes of good-natured humor, like Robert De Niro in a lighthearted role, but more often simply conveys long-suffering victimhood, as if Carlos is a martyr to the U.S. immigration policy. With much of the film in Spanish, one wonders if a language barrier inhibited Weitz's ability to direct his actors, given the flatness in some performances.

Audiences sometimes avoid films like A Better Life and The Bicycle Thief for their downbeat reputations. A Better Life falls short of its role model, but both movies radiate compassion and thus aren't nearly as depressing as the aggressive artifice of something like Transformers: Dark of the Moon. We deserve to see films about human beings once in awhile.