I finally caught A Better Life last night. It is a wonderful story with performances so good you forget you are in a movie. The pervasiveness of religion on the screen also contributed to forgetting you were watching something made in Hollywood. The movie is about a father and son seeking a better life. It treasures families, and life, compared with the usual Hollywood slop that runs these institutions down. Repeatedly, Luis (the son) faces choices between gangs and his family, and chooses his family.
A Better Life in some ways acts as a disjointed imaginary sequel to America America, the great 1963 Elia Kazan Best Picture nominee. Most people assume immigrants come to these shores for material wealth. But Kazan’s central character Stavros (based on his uncle) fled something else in his homeland: lawlessness, sin, corruption and evil ingrained in the culture. Like the father in A Better Life, Kazan’s Stavros is an island of goodness surrounded by sin, decadence and base motives. Sure, money awaits both immigrants in America. But more important than money is a culture, and system of laws, that allows good people like Stavros and Carlos to flourish and thrive, and pass goodness onto to their children.
If a Better Life is the disjointed imaginary sequel to America America, we might not like what we find. We never saw much of what happened to Stavros in America America after his arrival, but we can guess it was a far different America than Los Angeles of 2011 portrayed in A Better Life. Rather than escaping lawlessness, sin, decay and simple evil, it seems to have come to our country along with the good people like Carlos.