The rest of A Better Life, though, doesn’t quite measure up to the brilliance of the lead performer. Many of the early scenes come off as manufactured rather than organic, a polar opposite to the path that Bichir takes with his character. It is too earnest at times and that could cause cynical jerks like me to bail on the film before it ever really gets going. To be fair, A Better Life gets better as it goes and eventually leaves the safety of borderline-manipulative Oscar bait behind in favor of a more genuine tone but in some ways that makes the first act even more frustrating. There are also a handful of scenes that could have been edited out or restructured more purposefully and many of Bichir’s colleagues fail to deliver at a compatible level with the film’s star. Julian shows flashes of excellence but overall I found his performance to be spotty and less-than believable. I can’t say whether the blame for this rests on Julian or the film’s director, Chris Weitz, but the dynamic between father and son didn’t always deliver. It would have been interesting to see Bichir go toe-to-toe with a more challenging co-star, similar to the interactions between George Clooney and Shailene Woodley in The Descendants.
What saves A Better Life from becoming yet another independent film that doesn’t live up to the strength of its leading performer is the conclusion. Weitz saves his best work for last, creating a stirring, emotional scene in the very end in which Bichir delivers beautifully and which exhibits the very best of the relationship between Carlos and Luis. It is a hopeful, impactful finale that covers over the film’s previous missteps and allowed me to leave with a higher opinion of the film than I might have had otherwise. The result is a good movie highlighted my one fantastic performance and brought home by one stirring scene.