‘Just Like Us’ and ‘A Better Life’ Reviews: Lives on the Other Side

And now for something completely different from your summer blockbuster fest—I bring you news of a documentary and a story, in the event that you’re in the mood for one and not the other. What makes these two so remarkable? Well, they star no A-listers and are about stories you have likely never heard of. How refreshing is something new in the sea of remakes and rehashes this summer has dumped on our shores?

Just Like Us

Poster From Cross Cultural Entertainment

Starring a comedian you’ve probably come across on Comedy Central, this documentary takes us through the wilds of lands unknown, mysterious ventures into uncharted territory for the Westerner…the Middle East.

Comedian Ahmed Ahmed sets out on the comedy tour of a lifetime, breaking records and possibly a few laws, to show a side of the Middle East you would probably never see anywhere else. It’s families sharing stories in a backyard barbecue, it’s couples going out to catch a comedy show; Just Like Us wants the viewer to see past the stereotypes and controversies that have plagued a people for years. But not everything has caught up yet. Just as convincing is the argument that “we are all alike,” there’s a quick look out into Ahmed’s audience, segregated into men on one side and women on the other.

Various other comedians stop through the tour and offer their insights on the region, culture, and people. Some are native, some are not. What’s shared is the feeling of a conversation we started long ago, but forgot about it until someone else in the room brought it up. The cultural differences from country to country could easily mirror that of Southern states and Northern states. One country even previously banned Ahmed from performing in its borders. The ban was repealed and Ahmed takes the stage, as well as the spotlight of this documentary. His struggle between cultures is the struggle of many hyphen-Americans.

And here is where the movie starts to get too deep. Before long, there’s a sprawling discussion that needs disentangling in order to get organized. Ahmed does his homework, collecting interviews from bigots to his parents. But the arguments of shared experiences and sage knowledge from professors on Arab stereotypes are lost in the shuffle between so much information all at once. The most offensive of these is the beginning, which plays like a highlight reel of one-liners, to hell with context and explanations. It was only after the dizzying plunge that Ahmed, the comedian, turned to Ahmed, the observer.

It’s a cultural exchange unlike anything else you’ll see in the summer. A few organizational bumps along the road is nothing to be intimidated by. B

A Better Life

Poster From Summit Entertainment

In terms on something closer to home is the father and son story of A Better Life. Dealing with the human toll of immigration, the movie takes on many heavy handed topics like gang violence, racism, poverty, and the current immigration kerfuffle that has states and the ACLU going to court. Set in the much maligned neighborhoods of East L.A., A Better Life follows a father trying to do the best he can to provide for his son, dodging immigration officials and thieves. It’s a dark story, and not one that lets you leave the theater skipping.

The biggest challenge to the family is, of course, immigration officials. The immigrant story has been a popular narrative to turn to since the time of Chaplin. Much like those times, immigrants from certain countries were viewed less favorably than others. Even enduring processing at Ellis Island may not have been enough for entry to the country, as hundreds of immigrants were sent back for arbitrary or health-related reasons. The threat of deportation is a constant Grim Reaper over the character’s heads. Nowhere is safe. Even when an injustice occurs, there is no law to turn to and we are made to feel the same sinking feeling of loss of security. If there are no cops to turn to after a crime was committed, what happens then?

This movie too, is not quite perfect. It plays almost like a 90’s drama, complete with overly sentimental music that distracts rather than adds to a scene. Again, in grand effort to talk about everything all at once, this movie fails to properly address many issues in their characters’ lives, often leaving suggestions alone or plot threads unfinished before the next scene begins. It’s almost a tad unrealistic how quickly certain things progress in terms of some of the more legislative kind, but nonetheless, the ugly side of policing immigration is there for all the world to see.

It’s a well-intentioned, far-reaching movie. My hopes rest in its ability to promote conversation, not longevity. C-

About Monica Castillo

Monica Castillo (CAS '11) is a Film writer for the Quad. Drawn into the world of film studies accidentally, she's continued on writing, writing, and writing about film since. She also co-writes on another blog, http://beyondthebacklot.wordpress.com/, which is about even geekier film stuff. If you have the time, she would love to watch a movie with you.

View all posts by Monica Castillo →

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *