The story of Carlos (Demián Bichir) could not be more timely or timeless. A Mexican immigrant who has lived for decades in East L.A., he’s made a point of keeping his head down and working hard, all to keep his U.S.-born son Luis (José Julián) safe. When his longtime employer sells his pickup truck and landscaping business, it means a chance to move to another neighborhood and ensure that Luis won’t fall in with a gang at his school.
But everything begins to go wrong, and the movie shifts from an effective, low-key character study to a series of episodes, some antic, some predictable and some desperate. But if the film is uneven, and sometimes clichéd, Bichir is wonderful throughout, his ache and charm remaining subtle even as the melodrama seems overwhelming. As he gazes out the city bus window — with long panning shots intimating his heartbreak and wonder at all manner of people on the street or on suburban sidewalks, people who are living the life he imagined for Luis — you see the film’s unresolved dilemma: Carlos’ experience is too familiar and also too often forgotten. He understands how he’s seen, how he’s feared and reviled, and all he wants is to look and live like those who would judge him.
When Chris Weitz’s film keeps that focus, it’s poignant. But it’s just as often overly conventional, as if not to frighten away judgmental viewers.