Director Chris Weitz's new drama, "A Better Life," should be a much better movie than it is, but emotions get in the way. It's a quintessential L.A. story of a hard-pressed illegal immigrant family — in this case a father and son — living with the constant fear of deportation. Rather than being compelling, though, the film is weighted down by clichés. A pity, since the issues could hardly be more timely.
Weitz, working from a screenplay by Eric Eason ("Manito"), wears his heart on his sleeve in every scene. That tack has sometimes worked in the filmmaker's favor, as it did in 2002's surprisingly affecting "About a Boy," directed with his brother Paul. But where "About a Boy" invited us along for the emotional journey between a fatherless boy and Hugh Grant's rootless, rich layabout, in "A Better Life," we're left on the outside looking in.
The film is set in the present day and told in a near even mix of Spanish and English that wavers between feeling natural and merely biculturally politically correct. The story is a familiar one: Carlos (Demián Bichir) crossed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally years ago and has spent a lifetime working as an off-the-books gardener. His son Luis (José Julián) was born here, and in addition to U.S. citizenship, he has all the sullenness of a typical American teenager. Mom bailed years ago, so it's just the two of them left to deal with adolescence, a pervasive gang culture and Carlos' fear of discovery.