A high school girl tells a drug dealer that she will have her gangster uncles kill him if he doesn't give her friend a refund-and that's the first reference to family in A Better Life. Luis Galindo, her teenage boyfriend, can choose between two families: the gangster brotherhood that can elevate him from invisible to powerful, or his illegal immigrant father, Carlos, who craves the invisibility that keeps him safe.
In this intense and deeply moving film (rated PG-13 for violence, drug use, and language), Carlos (Demián Bichir) gambles that invisibility to buy his boss' landscaping truck and with it-so the boss wheedles him-"the American dream." Carlos agonizes over the risk of owning a vehicle without a driver's license, when a broken taillight or a crash could send him back to Mexico. When the truck is stolen, Carlos sheds his fear to find it. Luis (José Julián) comes too, on a journey that reacquaints father and son with each other and with their past.
Bichir and Julián give subtle and believable performances. The film's tension comes from impossible odds and stakes that are heartbreakingly high. They have no choice but to trust people who may betray them for a $50 bill or who may, like Carlos, still hold on to kindness in the face of poverty and fear.
It is difficult to tell if the title, A Better Life, is meant to be ironic. In one mute and appealing montage, Carlos looks out the truck's window and watches the scene change from the palm trees and swimming pools of the neighborhoods where he works to the peeling buildings and loitering thugs of the neighborhood where he lives. The search for a "better life" banishes Carlos to a state of silent panic; one stumble and the road could lead right back to where he started.
Why, Luis demands, would he want to add to the fear and increase the deprivation by taking care of a kid? Because "a better life" may also mean that even the hardest life is better when you have someone to work for and love.