Carlos Galindo is a decent man, a Mexican single parent working as a gardener in California to raise Luis, his fourteen-year-old son, whom Carlos is frightened will drift into local gang culture. Carlos buys a truck for his work with money loaned by his sister but a shifty new employee steals it from him and, though Carlos and Luis track the thief down, he has sold the truck. Father and son bond as they reclaim the vehicle from the pound but Carlos attracts police attention, making his future in America uncertain when it is discovered that he is an illegal immigrant.
A Better Life begins with Carlos Galindo (Demián Bichir) waking up and going to work. He works as part of a two-man crew with Blasco Martinez (Joaquín Cosio) as a gardener. Blasco is ready to return to Mexico and continually tries to persuade Carlos to purchase his business from him, which includes the work truck and professional gardening tools.Carlos' son Luis (José Julián) is in high school and is dating Ruthie Valdez, the niece of a prominent and powerful local gang leader. Although Ruthies influences get Luis into trouble, she sincerely loves and cares about him. Luis regularly goes to her house after school and is surrounded by gangs and the violence of the streets. This environment further has Luis contemplating his choice of submitting to the gang lifestyle. Luis and Carlos are at odds with each other because Luis is embarrassed by his father and, although he does not wish to follow in his footsteps, has a hard time committing himself to his education. However, his relationship with Ruthie pushes him more in the wrong direction, and his friend Facundo (Bobby Soto) wants to join the local gang and pressures Luis into doing the same.Carlos calls his sister Anna (Dolores Heredia) and asks her for financial assistance to purchase the gardening business from Blasco. Although she wishes to help him, she must first speak with her husband. The next evening, she shows up at his house with the $12,000 he asked for. She reveals to him that it is her daughters education fund. Carlos is reluctant to accept, but after Anna instills her faith in him he is determined to work hard, better himself and Luis, and subsequently pay her back in a year or less.Proud to have purchased the business from Blasco, Carlos returns to the corner where he first met him and hires a worker of his own, Santiago (Carlos Linares). On the first day, as Carlos is near the top of a tall palm tree, Santiago steals the truck. Panicked, Carlos runs after Santiago, but is easily evaded.The next morning, Carlos and Luis head out to find Santiago. They return to the corner looking for him, but he is not there. However, another man who frequents the corner leads them to a South Central apartment complex where he says Santiago lives. The apartment is used as lodgings for illegal immigrant workers from different countries. One man, to whom Santiago sold Carlos cellphone, tells them that Santiago moonlights as a dishwasher at a Mexican restaurant. It turns out to be a nightclub, which is closed when they arrive. They hear music in the distance and find a rodeo.At the rodeo, Carlos and Luis have a conversation revealing Luiss true feeling toward his culture, his father and their situation. Luis is bitter about his mother not being around and feels alone and abandoned because she went away. Furthermore, he expresses to Carlos that he doesnt care for Mexican style music, calling it stupid and that he does care for the past memories his father tries to bring up to bond with him. This further instills the feeling of alienation from Luis, but Carlos is determined to understand him, and have Luis understand Carlos. When the nightclub opens, Carlos finds Santiago washing dishes. Santiago runs away, but Luis is waiting outside, and tackles him. Luis beats Santiago, but Carlos stops him. They discover that Santiago has sold the truck and sent the $3000 to his family. Luis again reveals that he also had high hopes for the business and moving to a better neighborhood and going to a better school. Luis runs away.The next morning Carlos goes looking for Luis and finds him at his friend Facundos house. They argue, but Luis thinks hard and realizes that to move forward and succeed, he must stand by his father. They find the garage where Santiago sold the truck and manage to steal it back. However, on their way home, they are pulled over by the police and Carlos is arrested and placed in prison as an illegal immigrant. He is quickly processed, and Luis gets to the prison just before Carlos is about to board a deportation bus. The guards allow Luis and Carlos to see each other and Carlos apologizes to Luis for not being there for him, and for what he considers is failing him. Luis tells him he shouldnt be sorry. Carlos makes Luis promise him that he will succeed in his studies and Luis makes Carlos promise him that he will return. They both agree and Luis and Anna watch Carlos board the deportation bus.The film closes with Luis at a soccer game with his aunt Anna and his two cousins watching him play. We then see Carlos about to go into the desert with many other illegal immigrants and a coyote guiding them. The coyote says: Listos, para el otro lado – Ready for the other side?, Carlos responds, Vamos a la casa" – "Lets go home.