Among the surprise nominees for this year's Academy Awards is Mexican actor Demian Bichir, a man who has had a recurring role opposite Mary Louise Parker in Showtime's Weeds and ubiquitous fame in his native country, thanks to his part in 1999's widely seen Sexo, pudor y lagrimas. If you were lucky, you may have also caught Bichir's portrayal of Fidel Castro in Steven Soderbergh's two-part Che Guevara biopic, Che.

Bichir's recognition this year, for A Better Life (now on DVD), comes deservedly, but as is the case with so many films singled out for acting awards, the merits of Bichir's performance as Carlos, a struggling day laborer in East L.A., far exceed those of the actual film. A Better Life unwinds like a melodramatic yo-yo between the unnerving subtlety of Bichir, who conveys a worldly wisdom so depressed by harsh circumstances that it looks like naivete, and the miserable scenes from which he is conspicuously absent, which remind us unnecessarily that life is hard, and anguish inevitable.

Jose Julian, the teenaged actor who plays Bichir's preciously valiant son, Luis, and is always onscreen when Bichir is not, stars in this lesser portion of the film. When the camera lingers on him, as it for some reason does quite frequently, Julian stares back frozen – expressionless – as if instructed not even to try to act. The result is frustrating because the audience wants some measurable hint from Luis regarding just how far his papa will have to go to traverse the generational, linguistic, and sentimental borders between himself and his son. Clearly, we are meant to understand that these borders are tight but not impermeable, but Julian seems not to accompany Bichir (nor us, for that matter) on the hard-fought journey toward familial solidarity.

Director Chris Weitz, who made About a Boy into a poignant tale about an evolving father-son relationship, never really catches us off guard, as he did a few times in that film. But Bichir does, similar to the way fellow Best Actor nominee George Clooney makes us ache for comedic relief in The Descendants and then waits to provide it a little later on, gratifyingly reminding us to try and face pain before numbing it. There's not much comedy in A Better Life, but Bichir similarly keeps dramatic fuel in the reserve tank, and burns it neither too soon nor too quickly. The result is called catharsis, and it's a rare thing to see in movies these days.

The absence of unguarded satisfaction with movies, this one included, comes from the pursuit of "introducing" political and social content in a way that seems to trivialize both reality and fiction, by confusing the two. Honestly, I'm not sure who A Better Life is for. Those privy to the realities of Mexican-American culture and illegal immigration will be able to pick apart the film's inaccuracies while gnashing their teeth over its occasionally harsh narrative tricks. Meanwhile, none who see it can expect to suffer a change in their political sympathies: amnesty advocates will remain committed, and fence-builders will naturally call up their defenses, batting the film away as manufactured West Coast garbage. And those few undecided voters, wondering which way to go on such a complicated issue, surely have better options than a fictional film starring an actor you'd have to be heartless to root against.

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