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A better life? New film set in LA explores need for green space in the land of sprawl

Demian Bichir plays gardener Carlos Galindo in the new film
Demian Bichir plays gardener Carlos Galindo in the new film "A Better Life."
Merrick Morton © 2011 Summit Entertainment

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The film "A Better Life" follows a Mexican immigrant gardener and his son as they move through the landscapes of Los Angeles. The urban environment around them, where they live and work, deepens the themes of the film, and reflects hard truths about the city's green space.

Anybody has the right to walk on a California beach. But for Carlos Galindo, whose story anchors a new feature film, playtime on the Pacific coastline remains tantalizingly out of reach. He glimpses it, only in a view of a group of surfers near Zuma Beach in Malibu.

Producer Christian McLaughlin says Galindo works seven days a week cutting lawns. With job after job, he has no time to enjoy Zuma's breaks at Zuma Beach like that surfer, played in a cameo by McLaughlin.

"Here's this person who is able to leisurely take in a sport that requires a board and other things and it causes Carlos to dream a little bit," McLaughlin says.

A little later in the film, riding shotgun in a battered pickup truck, Galindo contemplates buying the vehicle from another gardener and reaching for a better financial toehold. The conversation, like about 30 percent of the film, happens in Spanish.

Carlos's aspirations take physical form in another scene filmed at Wattles Mansion in Hollywood. A century ago, Nebraska banker Gurdon Wattles built this winter house. He called it Jualita. Davalos says that in the movie the property — now run by the city of LA — plays the home of a matron whose palm trees need a trim.

Fermin Davalos, the film's location manager, is the kind of guy who knows the guys who have keys to properties like these.

"We're here in this beautiful back garden because as you look down you see a mansion where, this is obviously where a richer person lives. There are native palms all around. There are native plants in here. It has been very carefully tendered, taken care of by the Parks and Rec department," Davalos says. "Back in the 20s and 30s, this is the epitome of luxury and size. Now it would just be considered a fairly large house."

In one key scene, actor Demian Bichir as Galindo scales the tree in spiked boots; he climbs about 75 feet above the ground. Then he leans back in a leather harness, looks around, and sighs.

"At that moment from up there, it really does look beautiful as the basin of Los Angeles stretches before him," Davalos says. "He has a moment of beauty. He takes it in and enjoys it."

But in a moment of respite, his character takes a risk: while he’s in the tree, his truck is stolen. That sets up the rest of the story.

The film features green space from west to east in Los Angeles: Beverly Hills, Hollywood, Boyle Heights, Pico Rivera. "Our character is one who lives in east L.A. but works in west L.A. and there's quite a contrast between the environment in which he lives and the environment in which he works," Davalos says. "And that's reflected in the film in the colors that you see."

Carlos Gallindo wants to give his son Luis the blue-sky life he glimpses on the west side. The vistas the filmmakers offer him in Boyle Heights are industrial, blocky, hemmed in by freeways, and smoggy. But director Chris Weitz emphasizes that east L.A.'s story is more complex than that. Working there, he met people like his main character who create their own green spaces.

"Carlos grows his own food in his backyard. Which is a very Mexican thing to do. On the east side of L.A. you will hear roosters crowing. That's not a cliche; we had chickens in our base camp," Weitz says. He muses for a moment about the way public space shows up in his film. "And the colors inside of Carlos and Luis' house are very much earth tones."

That house is in Boyle Heights: Location manager Davalos points it out, perched on a slope near the Murchison Street School. He describes a scene where Luis, the son, plays soccer in Henry Alvarez Park. "Over here we shot two boys playing soccer and they're approached by what could be gang members. Our characters face an uphill climb. and our character is always struggling going uphill and that happens over and over again."

Next to Ramona Gardens, this park - beloved, but blighted with trash and brown grass, tells the truth about green space in LA. Which is that there isn’t much of it. At last count, 9 years ago, L.A. held an average of 32 acres of parkland for every thousand residents in predominantly white neighborhoods. In mostly Latino areas, the same number of people shares a little over half an acre of public land. Davalos wants to make sure we understand that sharing is joyful. "In the afternoon this place comes alive with children and families and music. While we were filming there was religious music coming from that direction and banda music coming from that direction," he says. "It's not a desert here. It's a place where people live."

Sprawl may defer L.A.'s dream of a city of gardens. The last decade has restored some green space to east LA: pocket parks, and a hiking area set to open this weekend. Near the end of “A Better Life,” Carlos's son plays on a bright green Boyle Heights soccer pitch. Weitz says that’s a hopeful view. "Part of what the film is about, aside from really being about the love of a father and a son, is the way LA is spaced out prevents people from getting to know each other. The green space in east L.A. has to be carved out, basically. And yes by the end they've managed to make a green space for themselves."

One final scene in “A Better Life” reveals another truth: Nature knows nothing about political boundaries. Galindo walks along sand tracks, against a backdrop of oak and coastal sage scrub, his face turned to a bright sun. The landscape may be in Mexico, but the narrative doesn’t reveal where it really is. Weitz shot it in Hungry Valley State Park, an hour north of L.A.

KPCC's Molly Peterson wrote and reported this story.