Diversity definitely is among filmmaker Chris Weitz's strong points. Subtlety generally is not.
Weitz's directing gigs, solo or with brother Paul, range from the raunch of "American Pie" to the teen bombast of "The Twilight Saga: New Moon" to the dark fantasy of "The Golden Compass" to the oddball warmth of "About a Boy," his finest work.
Now Weitz mines a bit of his Hispanic roots with "A Better Life," a fairly satisfying though by-the-numbers drama about an illegal Mexican immigrant struggling to build a decent future for his teenage son.
Mexican star Demian Bichir (who has a recurring role on "Weeds" and played Fidel Castro in Steven Soderbergh's "Che") is superbly restrained as the father, while newcomer Jose Julian delivers with honesty and passion as his son.
The story itself is rather obvious and superficial, Weitz and screenwriter Eric Eason presenting an outsider's look at immigrant life built around a few shaky plot devices.
Bichir's Carlos Galindo is a single father who's one of the anonymous thousands of Mexicans toiling to tend the yards, trees and gardens of the city's ruling class.
Convinced by his retiring boss to aim higher, Carlos borrows $12,000 from his sister (Dolores Heredia) to buy the man's truck and tools so he can improve his prospects and those of his surly, distant son, Luis (Julian).
And then, boom! The truck and tools are almost instantly stolen. An illegal alien, Carlos can't go to the police, so he embarks on his own desperate quest to track down the truck.
Luis, disparaging of Carlos and even embarrassed by him until now, abruptly becomes his dad's right-hand man so the two can comb the town together. The father gives his boy an education about the value of their heritage, the son gains appreciation for the sacrifices his old man has made.
It's a lightweight take on "The Bicycle Thief," Vittorio De Sica's neorealism replaced by Weitz's glossy glimpses of L.A.'s infinite diversity and its teaming Hispanic subculture.
"A Better Life" offers an inconsequential and unoriginal look at East L.A. gang life, though the casting of some colorful former gang members adds depth and authenticity that the script lacks.
The story coughs up convenient opportunities and obstacles. The theft of the truck itself feels particularly forced, a groaner of a story ruse that's only salvaged by the deep anguish Bichir infuses in Carlos at that moment.
You have to credit Weitz for the range of film choices he's made. You really have to credit him here for his casting choices, signing up actors that make "A Better Life" so much better than its routine drama.
"A Better Life," a Summit Entertainment release, is rated PG-13 for some violence, language and brief drug use. Running time: 98 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G — General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG — Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 — Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R — Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 — No one under 17 admitted.