In "A Better Life," Demian Bichir delivers an inspired performance that lifts a banal drama to the next level. The Mexican actor brings a lived-in sadness to his role as Carlos, an illegal alien gardener for homeowners in Los Angeles. Climbing to perilous heights to trim his customers' palm trees, he can look across the city's flatland expanse and see his own rundown neighborhood. The play of emotions in his eyes as he observes that chasm -- the expression of a man who has borne a lifetime of hard labor and bad breaks without flinching -- burns its way into the memory.
For Chris Weitz, the director of films as diverse as "About a Boy," "The Golden Compass" and the Twilight saga entry "New Moon," this project is clearly one from the heart. Weitz, whose grandmother was a Mexican film starlet, invests his hero with nobility of a nearly theological order. If Carlos were any more virtuous he could walk right across the tops of his clients' swimming pools. The bad guys, be they gang-bangers or rent-a-cops, invariably have smirks that could curdle milk. Too many of the cast members seem hokey and out of synch with the authentic-feeling barrio locales.
The script recycles impeccable, if unacknowledged, source material, lifted wholesale from Vittorio De Sica's timeless "Bicycle Thieves." Single father Carlos buys a pickup to carry his tools so that he can start his own lawn business and afford to send his U.S.-born teenage son, Luis, to a better school. The truck is stolen, but reporting the loss to the police would risk deportation. Father and son search for the truck, opening up rusty channels of communication along the way, and the sometimes ungrateful boy begins to see his dad in full for the first time. The writing of these heart-to-hearts gets awfully sticky (Luis: "Why did you have me?" Carlos: "For a reason to live"). The story breaks some new ground in a third act that takes a legal-procedural look at the workings of immigration enforcement, a sequence that feels like it was grafted on from a different movie.
Bichir redeems the secondhand plot and on-the-nose dialogue. He steals scenes by walking around and looking very real, as though a normal human being had somehow sneaked into a gaggle of performers. The right actor can supply a role with power and emotion beyond a writer's grasp, and Bichir is just about perfect.