“Teacher, why are you showing me such a sad movie? I’m gonna cry all day.”
“Miss, I’d kill to have a father like that!”
Sometimes I strike gold while watching a film with my students. It happened last week when we saw the summer 2011 independent film A Better Life, directed by Chris Weitz.
It’s my academic and personal mission to bring challenging material into the classroom. In continuation school, the challenges already in situ can thwart even my best intentions. But if I can find a riveting story, one that the kids and I can lose ourselves in, one with cinematic integrity, then we are richindeed. A Better Life piqued our interest in a big way.
It’s the topical story of a laboring undocumented immigrant who is both mother and father to his 14-year-old son. As some students wrote, “The son is careless about what he does and disrespectful to his dad”; “He thinks he is ruthless, but he is a punk!”; and, “He’s stubborn, cocky, and isn’t thankful for what he has.” The son does skitter along the margins of gang culture, to the disapproval of my students. I heard them chuckle during exchanges where the speakers address each other as “fool,” or use “A’ight,” shorthand for “all right.” But many found the son’s disdain for his dad’s efforts insufferable and his consorting with gangsters unwise.
The film is anchored by a majestic, understated performance by Mexican film star Demian Bichir. His suffering and stoicism elevate him from humility to nobility, if that’s possible. The students’ observations ranged from, “He doesn’t hit his kid,” to “He’s very noble,” to “He is the definition of a real man—he is humble, honest, eager for a better life.” Bichir’s monologue in the final minutes of the film is wrenching. One of the girls came to me afterward and said, “Miss, I’m glad the lights were off because I was crying so much.” I told her I was crying too, and we exchanged sad little smiles. But I am certain the father’s love for his son reached almost all of the students because they were deeply attentive, something I do not take for granted.
When we watch a film, I’m as active as I can be without becoming obnoxious. That is, I want the students to start to become mindful of color, detail, lighting, story links. The kids are already plot-line experts, more acute in that area than I am. In A Better Life, all of Los Angeles is a plot element. Students recognize settings, saying, “It’s very correct. Dead-on what East LA/Lincoln & Boyle Heights areas look like,” or, “I like how they don’t have to be in the middle of night for bad things to happen.” Or, “It seems very real because it could happen to any Mexican parent.” One girl nails it:”I think the film looks realistic in some ways for many of us.”
Patrick Goldstein wrote an article for the Los Angeles Times elaborating upon the film’s power. He makes an eloquent argument for a Best Actor nomination for Demian Bichir. I’m with him on that one. So are my students. Rent this film and see what you think.