In his Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain wrote about the effect that learning to be a riverboat pilot had had on the way he saw the Mississippi River:
[T]he romance and the beauty were all gone from the river. All the value any feature of it had for me now was the amount of usefulness it could furnish toward compassing the safe piloting of a steamboat. Since those days, I have pitied doctors from my heart. What does the lovely flush in a beauty’s cheek mean to a doctor but a “break” that ripples above some deadly disease? Are not all her visible charms sown thick with what are to him the signs and symbols of hidden decay? Does he ever see her beauty at all, or doesn’t he simply view her professionally, and comment upon her unwholesome condition all to himself? And doesn’t he sometimes wonder whether he has gained most or lost most by learning his trade?
Long-time readers may remember when my PJM author’s bio listed me as “an almost-successful screenwriter”, and I often tell people that I’m a “recovering actor”. Since that bio, I’m a bit closer to being a real screenwriter, and I’ve had a couple of relapses into acting, at least in community theater (which is as bad as my Hollywood and New York friends warned me it would be, but that’s another story entirely.) So it’s inevitable that I go to a movie with different eyes than most people. What’s more, Roger L. Simon, the esteemed Patrón of Pajamas Media, is a friend and has been rather a mentor to me.
All of which meant going to see A Better Life was an intimidating experience. I love workshopping things with my friends; I’m a lot less comfortable seeing or reading a friend’s work when it’s finished.
I shouldn’t have worried.
This is the story of Carlos Galindo, an illegal immigrant in Los Angeles, working as a gardener. He lives in a little house, so small that there’s only one bedroom, which he gives to his son Luis while sleeping on the couch himself. The basic story is that Carlos is a hard-working Everyman who just wants a better life for Luis, who is — like every 14 year old boy — a complete asshole He has worked for years, for cash, with Blasco Martinez, a legal immigrant who now wants to sell Carlos his truck and move back to Mexico. Blasco has bought himself a farm, a ranchita, near his home town in Mexico. With his own ranchita and the money he’s made from years in Los Angeles, he can move back and be an important man, a Patrón. He clearly likes Carlos, he wants to sell him the truck so Carlos can get ahead just as Blasco did; Carlos wants it, but since he’s an illegale, he won’t be able to register the truck in his own name, doesn’t have a driver’s license; he’s an outlaw in the old sense that he’s living outside the law, and foregoing the law’s protections as well as the law’s restrictions.
He finally agrees to buy the truck. Dramatic situations ensue. And that’s all I’m going to say about the plot; nothing happens the way you think it “should” and there’s no way to talk about the plot without giving some of that away.
What I can talk about is the craft.
The acting was pretty amazing. The adults are actors who have been around in both Spanish-speaking and English-speaking TV and movies for years. Joaquín Cosio, who plays Blasco, is one of those character actors whose face will be familiar even if his name is not; José Julián, who plays Luis, is brand new, and pretty damn good.
Demián Bichir, who plays Carlos, is on a whole other level. Bichir is from a theater family — his father Alejandro is a very successful hyphenate writer/actor/director, his mother Maricruz Nájera is a very successful actress, and his brothers Bruno and Odiseo are themselves successful actors. Michael Caine famously advised that the hardest thing for an actor in movies is to play small enough in a closeup; as he put it, in a closeup, you don’t act, you just think, and the camera reads your mind. In one memorable scene, Bichir shows us silently, in one 30-second tight closeup, as a moment of happiness dissolves and he begins to think of a dangerous time coming up. If the Academy is watching, and a bigger name actor isn’t playing a mental patient or tragic leftist politician, that one scene should get Bichir one of those gold statues.
The fact that the screenplay surprised me every step of the way is a sign of how well-built it was. (The screenplay is by Eric Eason, “from a story by Roger L. Simon,” which is the Writer’s Guild negotiated solution for credit in a screenplay Eason based on a screenplay of Roger’s that had been in development off and on for years). Almost nothing was strained. I grew up around people like these; I knew everyone, and the street/California/Mexican slang/Spanglish dialogue was spot on as far as I could tell. If you speak Spanish, keep an ear on the dialogue when it’s in Spanish. (If you don’t, there are subtitles, and anyway probably 80 percent of the dialogue is in English. You’ll manage; don’t let the part in Spanish deter you.)
But if you do speak Spanish, keep an ear out; there are some little subtle points that really work. One of them that should have been somehow subtitled but wasn’t is what sounds like some kind of nickname Carlos calls Luis. It sounded like “Meeho”, and — sue me — I don’t change languages easily. My ear takes a few beats to go from one to another. I had to listen carefully to finally catch on that he was calling Luis “mi hijo” — “my son”. So here’s a free hint: once you realize this, it tells you a lot about Carlos.
The other is a bit of more or less street slang that Google translate won’t help you with. The subtitles are just a bit bowdlerized; they make vulgarisms a little cleaner for the gringo audience. In one of them, Blasco recommends an attorney, who according to the subtitles is “a real killer.” The Spanish word he uses in chingón. Let me think of how to explain this in a family magazine: when you take a verb and change the ending to –on, the word means something that does or is the verb. The verb here is chingar, a word that everyone in my high school knew how to decline if they knew no other Spanish. Chingar refers to, um, the philoprogenitive act.
In other words, a chingón is a “fucker”. Unlike in English, however, this is a term of approbation, admiration. Like “fucking awesome.” Again, a subtlety, and one Eason gets exactly right.
So see A Better Life. It’s chingón.