Pitched to tug at even Arizona governor Jan Brewer's heartstrings, A Better Life takes on the combustible topic of illegal immigration through the soft, safe focus of father/son bonding, with a heavy nod to The Bicycle Thief. When not tending the lawns of affluent Angelenos, undocumented Mexican Carlos (Demián Bichir, who played Castro in Che) sleeps on the living-room couch of the tiny East L.A. home he shares with his moody, layabout 14-year-old son, Luis (an unsteady José Julián, making his big-screen debut), still nursing deep hurt over the mother who abandoned him when he was a toddler. Carlos hopes his economic situation will improve once he buys a truck and goes into business for himself; when the vehicle is stolen by someone living even more precariously, Luis joins his father in tracking it down—a plot development that provides the pretext for hoary parent/child rapprochement, though relieving us of the more tiresome thread of the kid's consideration of gang membership. The third act finds Carlos behind bars at an ICE detainee center, where grim facts about what awaits most illegal immigrants are awkwardly shoehorned in—truths quickly eclipsed by the tears father and son will share. But director Chris Weitz and screenwriter Eric Eason are unable to commit fully even to this sudsy vision, tacking on a coda that completely undermines their already timid message.
The errant son (Julián) and his steadfast father (Bichir).
Runs at Majestic Bay, Fri., July 15. Rated PG-13. 98 minutes.