We Bought a Zoo
A widowed father played by Matt Damon moves to the South Californian country and purchases a zoo with his family
On Film4: 31 Aug 6:25PM
New Moon director Chris Weitz shows that downsizing can be no bad thing with this simple drama about a family of Mexican immigrants in contemporary LA
Chris Weitz, hitherto best-known as director of About A Boy, New Moon and for crimes against cherished children's literature, seems an unlikely scion of the Italian neo-realist school. His latest film, though, a tale of Mexican immigrant experience in contemporary LA, is being hailed as a latter-day Bicycle Thieves - and with good reason. Demian Bichir fits hand to glove in his role as hang-dog but hopeful Carlos, a gardener who finds his efforts to improve his and his son's lot easily frustrated, with increasingly tragic inevitability. The two-wheeler of de Sica's film here is traded for a pick-up truck - recently acquired by Carlos so that he might become his own boss. It's a symbol both of hopeful independence and ever-present threat, since Carlos is driving sin papeles.
So: single dad, socially downtrodden, struggling to ends meet, sob story... all sounds suspiciously like made-for-daytime-TV fodder, but Eric Eason's script is more nuanced than the bare bones of its plot suggest. Carlos, trusting almost to a fault, commands our sympathy without coming across as an allegorical victim of circumstance or society; while his teenage son, flirting with the gang life on his doorstep, is confused, belligerent, loyal, loving and spiteful in equal measure, as teenagers often are. Such credible characterisation extends to equally realistic ambiguity around the characters father and son encounter - neither Luis's gangsters-waiting-to-happen mates (one of whom heartbreakingly chides Luis' filial disloyalty with ‘if I had a pop I wouldn't do him like that'), nor the character who most disastrously betrays Carlos's good nature are painted as villains for the purposes of pointing up their haloes.
There's no mistaking this is an all-out tearjerker; though one whose sentiment is hard to scoff at, and one whose modest, single-strand narrative credits the viewer with an old-fashioned attention span - that's to say, unlike the sprawling pretensions and grandiose lurches of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's recent films, whose work seems the most obvious Hollywood equivalent. The irony here being that, as the product of a Hollywood filmmaker, A Better life is destined to be sneered at in some quarters as shameless Oscar-bait. Though had it been made by the Dardenne brothers or a director whose name Western audiences struggle to pronounce, it would probably qualify as an art house smash.
From the guy who brought you American Pie and Twilight: New Moon... Oh. A movingly simple and simply moving father-son drama set in downtown LA, refreshingly free of pretentious narrative pyrotechnics. Have a hankie up your sleeve and hang your cynicism up at the door.
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