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A Better Life: 'Bicycle Thieves' in the mean streets of east L.A.

3 out of 4 stars


The wheel, as we know, cannot be reinvented. But a 1948 Italian neorealist classic about two wheels can be reimagined for the contemporary big screen – and without feeling like a mere retread.

The shape of Chris Weitz's richly detailed, beautifully scripted A Better Life, set mostly in east Los Angeles, traces that of Vittorio De Sica's influential Bicycle Thieves (which, for Toronto cinephiles, screens in glorious black and white July 28 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox). Through a family sacrifice, a struggling father gets money to buy a vehicle, a means to more stable employment. But during his first day on the job, his wheels are stolen. Believing he can find the thief, the father, accompanied by his only son, embarks on a determined yet increasingly dangerous search.

In A Better Life, the vehicle is a fully loaded landscaping truck. Carlos (revered Mexican thespian Demian Bichir) has been living for years in L.A. as an undocumented garden worker, raising his son alone. Now 15 (older than De Sica's son character), Luis (Jose Julian) is skipping school and mingling with neighbourhood gangs – although, for now at least, the main attraction is the lively family dynamic.

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Their communication problems are not just about the generation gap. Luis knows little about his cultural background. He doesn't want to talk about his mother, who abandoned the family. Realizing his son is slipping away, Carlos borrows money from his sister and buys the truck and client list from his boss. He can barely contain his excitement; Luis can barely contain his embarrassment. But deeper feelings surface a little later, when the film hits its main track: a story about a father and son emotionally connecting as men for the first time.

After picking up Santiago, an older worker, and arriving at a hillside estate, Carlos scales a tall palm tree and pauses to survey the spectacular view. Echoing the crucial turning-point scene in De Sica's film, Carlos can't scramble down in time as Santiago drives off.

The search is a journey of cultural discovery for Luis. The trail leads to an apartment crowded with illegal immigrants, a Mexican rodeo, then a confrontation with Santiago at his restaurant job during which Carlos is shocked by his son's behaviour. The search goes on, but the road ahead darkens.

De Sica shot Bicycle Thieves on location in post-Second World War Rome and used non-actors, an approach employed by many filmmakers considered part of the Italian neorealism movement. A Better Life also hits the streets and casts many non-actors in small parts. But neorealism is an inspiration, not the style.

Bichir delivers a powerful, nuanced performance as a stoic but complex character who treats everyone – even those who have wronged him – with a dignity he rarely receives. Veteran Spanish cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe shows us rarely glimpsed corners of L.A. with a vibrancy felt through colour and dramatic framing, as opposed to fast moves.

Speaking of moves, A Better Life is an interesting one for Weitz, who produced American Pie and directed The Golden Compass and, ahem, The Twilight Saga: New Moon. Whatever the reason (his grandmother was a Mexican movie actress), this film feels more personal that just a gig.

A Better Life opens in Toronto at the Cumberland on Friday; other Canadian cities to be scheduled.

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Special to The Globe and Mail

A Better Life

  • Directed by Chris Weitz
  • Screenplay by Eric Eason
  • Starring Demian Bichir and Jose Julian
  • Classification: PG

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