I despise Oscar Bait; I really do. It's not fun watching filmmakers strip a film of all its artistry and thought-provoking attributes, actually, it ends up rather exhausting. Of course, there is good Oscar Bait ("The King's Speech"), but I still dislike the idea as a whole. If you don't even know what I'm on about and are scratching your head whenever I use the term, I'll fill you in; "Oscar Bait" is a term best used to define a film that tries to be overly provocative and different. Basically, it's crafted for the sake of Academy Awards nominations and pure indulgence. Sometimes, the Academy is blind; other times, they are not.
"A Better Life" certainly feels like it should be Oscar Bait, and given the premise and set-up, I expected nothing more or nothing less. However, I walked out pleasantly surprised; the film was not, in fact, intended as a cheap tear-jerker or an "inspiring" story. It was made with passion, in the caring hands of director Chris Weitz, who has just enough sympathy for his story and his characters to make the film work, in spite of the formulaic road that it consistently walks.
The film is a typical father-son-relationship story; almost completely without twists, but with a few carefully drawn out individual characters, all who make it worthy of a viewing. Both the father and the son are illegal immigrants living in America; the father, Carlos (Demian Bichir), works as a gardener while the son, Luis (Jose Julian), aspires to become a member in a local gang. Carlos dreams of starting their life off new; it's just them, in their world as they perceive it, after all. Luis's mother is not in the picture. So both characters must fend for themselves.
Carlos buys a truck from his employer. With that truck, with a certain amount of money to seal the deal, the father envisions moving out of the city so that he can give his kid a proper education, amongst equally as "proper" people. When Carlos has the truck, he is overjoyed, but in an instant, it is stolen by a fellow worker; prompting the father and son to embark on a journey that will inspire the rebirth of the bond that they once had. It ends on a typically tear-jerker note, with less emotional payoff than you may want or expect, but I have to say; it's so well-made and enjoyable, that it's easy to forget about that one large, crucial element.
Bichir plays Carlos perfectly. As a fatherly figure, he's what you'd expect; but the actor handles the role so, so well; I think if the film wins any awards, then that performance alone should be the thing that earns them. Jose Julian is also effective as the son, but given that he's a teenage boy, the screenwriters would've had to have taken an entirely different direction to make him interesting. Don't get me wrong, it's a good performance from a gifted young acting talent, but the character just didn't reach me, or strike me, as someone intellectual or worth liking immensely.
Still, this is an engaging film; from start-to-finish. I'd even say that for the third act, which is undeniably clumsy and clichéd, but at the end of the day, I still thought it worked. Hell, the entire film works; if that's the right word. It can't be called a mess, as it plays things straight, and for the same reasons, it cannot be called great. If it has one fatal flaw, it is the familiarity of the approach; which, mind you, is still a competent one. There were few problems I had with the film that Weitz has made, which is an all-together MUCH better one than his last project (which was the sequel to the first "Twilight" film). As far as qualities go, it has more positives than it does negatives. It's not for everyone, but it has a charm and appeal that will get it the audience that it deserves.
The filmmaker feels at home with this material, so it flows naturally enough to be effective, and the direction is just fine; but nothing groundbreaking. However, what more to expect from Weitz; the same man who brought us that fine Hugh Grant drama, "About a Boy"? There was nothing "special" about the direction there; it was all in the writing, the acting, and how both of those things mixed together to create something that felt, well, conclusive. The same could be said for "A Better Life", which isn't quite as good, but it's still a character-driven drama, and like the said earlier film, I'd even call it well written. In a world where just about every other drama is sappy, uninvolving, and unrealistically fictional in its exaggeration; here's the kind of drama that comes along, begs for attention, and if things go alright for it; that's exactly what it will get.