When I first discovered that Chris Weitz, the filmmaker of big broad studio movies like American Pie and Twilight New Moon had made a Chicano film I admittedly rolled my eyes. As a first generation Mexican whose parents moved to Chicago from San Luis Potosi and have many family and friends who are called that atrocious humanitarian misnomer “illegal”, I was inclined to think ‘What does this rich white boy know about the Mexican immigrant experience and why does he get to make a film about it instead of another chicano artist”. And the gloriously sappy trailer that includes such trite sound bytes like, “Its a cruel place but I work here, or “ I had you mijo for a reason to live” gave me more fodder. But I checked myself told myself to be open minded – after all I enjoyed Quinceanera quite a bit and that was made by two gay white men who just ‘got it”. So I went to the LAFF premiere on Tuesday night eager to disprove my theory that it was going to be trite and nowhere authentic. Plus by then I had read and was wholly impressed to discover Weitz’s grandmother is none other than the legendary and still living today Mexican actress Lupita Tovar! Tovar was in the very first Mexican talkie, Santa (1932). Who knew?
After a warm-up performance by Ozomatli, Weitz took the stage and thanked everyone and their mother like a good conscientious filmmaker who knows he has to repay favors for making the unproven and unmarketable Latino film. He thanked the usual industry suspects and Father G and Homeboy Industries who was his ‘connection to the hood’ , and Jami Gertz (yes that girl from Lost Boys) who came on as guardian angel producer.
A Better Life stars the sexy Demian Bichir (who first stole my heart in 1999’s Sexo Pudor y Lagrimas as the angst torn punk blonde) beefed up as a Mexican gardner with a 14 year old son who is on his way to get jumped into a gang to avoid ending up like his broke, 18 hour working dad. The mother out of the picture, their relationship is a strained and detached one. But when the truck that signifies a way to be his own boss and start his own business – presumably the ticket so his son can go to a better school, is stolen, the son played by Jose Julian, helps his dad steal it back, only to confront the consequences that shadows every single “illegal” immigrant’s existence living in the U.S.
What I like about it:
The father and son story which ultimately brings to light the sad reality of borders tearing families apart. This family angle is one that is often overlooked in these kind of stories and in that sense I do appreciate the compassion and humanity which I wish the political system would consider. Also, nice photography, real locations. The homeboys must have told Weitz where some of the nooks and crannies of Aztlan exist, ranging from East LA’s taquerias to the gaudy discos in South LA. My favorite part of the movie? When crossing the border a character says “Let’s Go Home.” Cue “We didnt cross the border, the border crossed us”. That’s the closes the film comes to making a statement about the larger issue.
What I don’t like about it:
By doggedly focusing on the father and son story to the point of tunnel vision, the film ignores many inherent and rich layers of the LA immigrant experience that would have added complexity and substance. An erudite programming veteran once said one must judge a movie for what it tries to do, not what it does not. Clearly the filmmakers decided not to make it a political film but to completely avoid it is irresponsible. Especially given the story’s pivotal scene and thruline. How do you not anchor it in real life and address immigration reform like police handing over illegal immigrants that pose no criminal danger over to ICE and Arizona’s audacious move to end citizenship to US citizens born to illegal immigrants. Second, characterization is one dimensional and muddy. The father is a saint and the son’s evident contempt for other illegal immigrants is not set up. Single headshot takes between them pause for far too long, reminiscent of soap opera. One other thing – the dialogue: Believe me there is so much saucy slang to working class Spanish that isn’t represented. The writer Eric Eason who made Manito in 2003 about hot New York Dominicans managed to capture the electrifying pulse and charm of Spanglish speaking US latinos but here its much more contrived and stilted. Not to mention the tendency of having characters say something in Spanish and then repeat it word for word in English as if for the sake of the audience. That the film wears its heart on its sleeve is fine. I’m a sucker for emotionally manipulative films (Biutiful). But overall the film stays forced, oversimplified and barely scratches at the surface.
Although I was not won over, I have to say I would be pleased if audiences embrace it. Go see it for yourself at the Arclight this weekend. Many other film critics are loving it including Peter Travers of Rolling Stone. Believe me, I hope Summit successfully breaks precedent and makes a profit with this latino film. Success in the marketplace might mean it will make way for real chicano filmmakers to tell their own stories. I hope so because there is mucho mas sabor and intensity and complexity when you write what you know.