Sunday, November 20, 2011

A Better Life, No Matter How Elusive

"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 rich indeed. 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!" Or, "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 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."

Patric Goldstein wrote an article for the Los Angeles Times (CROSSING BORDERS, 11/17/11) 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.

A BETTER LIFE, directed by Chris Weitz
Starring Demian Bichir and Jose Julian
Summit Entertainment

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Make Mine Lemonade

Dare I cite the old bromide, "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade?" Now I actually love lemons in their every form. Naturally, the other night I chose to visit Lemonade, a restaurant which opened at 146 South Lake Avenue two months ago. The occasion? A delayed birthday meal for one of my valiant friends who knows a thing or two about lemonizing.

This particular friend and I have a years-long tradition of meeting for dinner every 6 or 8 weeks, choosing restaurants that our families probably wouldn't go for. Hence, the Thai-Italian noodle house. The Peruvian that replaced Hooters. The serene Tibetan on Holly. But we haven't met for our dinners since last summer. Over a year ago, my friend received a dire diagnosis which has necessitated a series of surgeries. Life-changing surgeries. We are trying to get back on track. The good news is that she is here and she is sunny and she is braver than ever.

In the two hours that we devote to catching up about children and mulling over life's challenges, there's always some unexpected profundity that emerges. I was thunderstruck when she said, "Jean, you're an inspiration to me! You were homeless and practically living out of your car for months [between houses] and you still manage to stay positive!" Psssh, thought I. Mere inconvenience compared to the courage that health issues demand. She thanked ME for keeping in touch and keeping her connected. But who are we if we don't show our friends and families through our actions that we love them? And we cannot stint on this because we all need that support sometime.

We both were delighted to try Lemonade. It is a cafeteria-style design with a playful yellow motif. Look up to see the yolk-shaped light fixtures while you sit in a chair colored just like a hard-boiled egg. There is a boggling array of at least 20 salads which can be ordered in share-able portions. Sandwiches, braises, soups, and macaroni + cheese follow. The fancy lemonades include cucumber mint, which I tried for my walk on the wild side. We enjoyed an ample meal for about $20. Lemonade turns out to be an unexpected sweet spot in Pasadena. (Six other locations exist in Los Angeles