A cook, his g.f. and her young son struggle to make ends meet in “A Better Life,” a solidly made, emotionally effective hard-luck drama that nonetheless feels like a slightly odd fit for Gallic thriller specialist Cedric Kahn. Tossing off a few brisk, sharply chiseled reels before settling into an increasingly bleak cycle of poverty and misfortune, this well-acted item essentially boils down to a Euro-Canadian “Pursuit of Happyness” with a steelier, less sentimental edge. A strong lead performance by actor-helmer Guillaume Canet could boost the film’s already respectable offshore prospects following its January rollout in France.
Script by Kahn and Catherine Paille demonstrates a pleasing sense of narrative economy early on, zipping assuredly through the early stages of a relationship between Yann (Canet), a thirtysomething Parisian cook, and Nadine (Leila Bekhti), the beautiful French-Lebanese waitress he chats up at a restaurant where he’s looking for work. The two fall quickly but deeply in love, while Yann also becomes close to Nadine’s 9-year-old son, Slimane (Slimane Khettabi).
Trouble rears its head not long after the lovers impulsively buy a large lakeside property in a secluded rural area with the intention of turning it into a restaurant. One of the most gratifying aspects of “A Better Life” is its attention to the process of small-business acquisition; the risky revolving loans Yann uses to finance the purchase and the details of restaurant sanitation code may not sound like the stuff of riveting drama, but for an impressive stretch of screentime they are.
Pic persuasively illustrates not only how a few questionable decisions can spiral out of control, but also how quickly tenderness and affection can turn to bitterness and emotional violence in the face of crippling poverty. More than once, Yann and Nadine come to verbal if not quite physical blows, enacted by Canet and Bekhti with a canny embodiment of passion and frustration. And when a fed-up Nadine leaves France to take a reportedly lucrative job in Montreal and leaves Slimane behind, Yann and the boy begin their own tough dynamic in the film’s more grinding second half.
Not to be confused with Chris Weitz’s recent “A Better Life” (though that drama also hinged on a father and son beset by financial desperation), Kahn’s film contains nary a single unconvincing moment, ratcheting up the emotional tension with one believably soul-crushing circumstance after another. From Yann’s tense discussions with a stern but good-hearted financial counselor to his fury at Slimane when the boy takes a risk they literally can’t afford, the drama remains sharply focused and specific to the end. If the result disappoints slightly, it’s due largely to the nagging familiarity of setup and destination, especially coming from a director best known for his twisty thrillers of sexual panic such as “Red Lights” and “L’ennui.”
Pic is confidently appointed in all departments, conveying an especially vivid sense of the cramped, crowded quarters in which this makeshift family often finds itself — first a rundown trailer home, then a squalid apartment.