An undocumented worker seeks “A Better Life” for himself and his troubled teenage son, only to find that good intentions have a way of going awry. That’s also the moral inadvertently offered up by director Chris Weitz’s problematic new picture, which, despite Demian Bichir’s affecting lead performance and a strong feel for Los Angeles’ Mexican-American communities, emerges an earnest and overly programmatic heart-tugger. Still, assuming the pic’s topicality, accessibility and specific appeal to Hispanic audiences result in good specialty returns, Summit could push this hard-luck immigrant fable further into the mainstream spotlight than usual for low-budget, minority-focused fare.
A Mexican-born, L.A.-based gardener who crossed the border illegally years ago, single dad Carlos Galindo (Bichir) works hard as a day laborer, taking odd jobs for affluent Angelenos whose well-tended homes and lawns provide a taste of the ever-elusive American dream. His struggles to make ends meet go mostly unappreciated by his son, Luis (Jose Julian), a sullen, distant kid susceptible to gang influences at school.
Their situation seems to improve when Carlos’ sister (Delores Heredia) lends him the money to buy a truck off his friend (Joaquin Cosio), allowing Carlos to work as an independent contractor. But in one of the film’s crueler, tougher-minded developments, the truck is soon stolen, shattering Carlos’ dreams of a new livelihood and leaving him with a debt he has no way of repaying.
From here, the film becomes a detective story of sorts with a clear debt to “Bicycle Thieves,” as Carlos, unable to go to the police, searches for the truck with a suddenly helpful Luis. Their journey takes them all over the city, from a cramped South Central apartment to a Mexican rodeo at Pico Rivera Sports Arena to a kitchen where day laborers wash dishes by night. Naturally, father and son bond along the way, despite their polar-opposite worldviews: Trusting, compassionate Carlos sees the good in every soul they encounter, while shrewd, cynical Luis at times reveals a violent streak especially alarming for a kid his age.
After “The Golden Compass” and “The Twilight Saga: New Moon,” it must have been a relief for Weitz to scale back with a slice of character-driven, socially conscious filmmaking that favors humanism over politics. While the result bears little resemblance to those recent big-budget fantasies or the earlier studio comedies Weitz directed with his brother Paul (“About a Boy,” “Down to Earth”), the studio polish that has informed the helmer’s past work also persists here, smoothing over the rough edges and ambiguities that would have given the film the realist texture it’s clearly aiming for.
Much of that texture was present in Eason’s assured 2002 writing-directing debut, “Manito,” another tale of a fractured Latino family trying to make it in urban America; his scenario here feels more diagrammed and on-the-nose in its handling of plot and characterization, and the central relationship, while engaging enough, never fully earns its final assault on the viewer’s tear ducts. Tension-milking scenes in which Luis feels pressured to join his crime-inclined friends (Bobby Soto, Chelsea Rendon) are especially unpersuasive in their attempts at ghetto realism.
Bichir is effortlessly sympathetic as a man who, whatever his legal status, is clearly a model citizen and a loving father, yet the veteran thesp finally feels as shackled by his nobly downbeat trajectory as Carlos is by his circumstances. Julian has a more difficult time with a flintier role, though it’s to the younger thesp’s credit that he doesn’t bother making Luis especially likable.
Sets, costumes and well-chosen locations furnish evocative views of a Los Angeles rarely seen in mainstream cinema, and early glimpses of Carlos’ routine, waiting in line with other laborers or grabbing a quick meal from a taco truck, are a nice touch. A soundtrack pulsing with Latin-inflected hip-hop (with an original Ozomatli song played over the closing credits) balances out a somewhat incongruous musical score.