Talk about a schmaltzy way to take on the explosive topic of immigration. Like Tom McCarthy’s vastly superior The Visitor, A Better Life attempts to put a human face on the immigration debate by zeroing in on a good person—here, Carlos, played by Demian Bichir—who simply wants a chance at the American dream. In A Better Life, Carlos dreams of starting a gardening business: if it succeeds, he’ll be able to give his son Luis (Jose Julian) the opportunities he had to cross the border for, with the added bonus of hopefully keeping Luis away from the omnipresent East L.A. gangs. Unfortunately, things begin to go awry from early on after Carlos takes a loan from a family member to jumpstart his vision, and his pride and nobility keep him from being able to turn them around without dire consequences. The ingredients are there for a decent film, but there’s not a hint of nuance to be found: director Chris Weitz, who co-wrote the charming About a Boy (2002) with his brother Paul, is clearly the inferior talent. Each sequence plays out in mind-numbingly cliched fashion: father-son lectures, chin-up resilience—especially the final shot—and a stern message about the heartless anti-immigration movement are depicted in an infuriatingly shallow manner. Such an important topic deserves a bit of delicacy, not a made-for-Lifetime approach. If not for some decent acting—particularly from the soulful Bichir, whose eyes alone portray the pain of his situation—A Better Life would be a truly worthless picture.

32/100