In The Documentary-Like 'Life & Nothing More,' A Family Struggles To Get By
The title of Life & Nothing More, like the movie itself, is both modest and sweeping. At a time when several other notable films about the African American experience deal in satire or melodrama, director Antonio Mendez Esparza takes a documentary-like approach to the travails of a fictional black family.
The filmmaker, a Spaniard who was living in Florida when he conceived the movie, is credited as the screenwriter. But his scenario is based on interviews with people who scrape along the poverty line and the dialogue is mostly improvised. The film's nonprofessional performers, all with the same first names as the characters they play, are the film's major assets.
The story opens with 14-year-old Andrew (Andrew Bleechington) on a bus with his mother, Regina (Regina Williams). He's surly; she's fed up. That's not an unusual teen/parent dynamic, but for people in their situation, every little misstep is a potential catastrophe. Andrew's already under court supervision after being arrested for petty theft; Regina can barely support him, her three-year-old daughter Ry'nesia (Ry'nesia Chambers) and herself on what she makes as a truck-stop diner waitress.
The movie first follows Andrew, who takes care of his sister and attends high-school classes in which he could scarcely be less involved. In one scene, a teacher's disembodied voice explains the fundamentals of American democracy while Andrew sits alone in the crowd, framed by the bodies of other students. He may well think that "freedom" is only for the white and wealthy — a few of whom he'll fatefully encounter in the story's final act.
Andrew, Regina, and their peers dwell in a sphere separate from politics and government, which Mendez Esparza underscores with occasional references to something that doesn't seem to affect them: the ongoing 2016 presidential campaign. A shrugging discussion of Hillary Clinton comes out of nowhere, much like the moment when Andrew and other guys on a landscaping crew are subjected to an impromptu prayer session by a strip-mall evangelist.
The focus shifts toward Regina as she encounters Robert (Robert Williams, who's not related to the actress). He's a seducer, but not so slick as to be implausible. Andrew's father is in jail, which is one reason Regina denounces all men and resists Robert — for a time. Soon, Robert has moved in, leading to conflict with Andrew and the tale's other major crisis.
Shot on everyday locations in small-town northern Florida, Life & Nothing More accumulates tiny but telling details as a documentary would. Mendez Esparza's style is deliberate, even a bit theatrical, as he emphasizes by shooting from fixed positions. Rather than weave through the action to simulate cinema vérité, Barbu Balasoiu's camera often stays distanced and still. Individual scenes are static and prolonged, and often proceed without any cuts — although the editing gets livelier as the events become more ominous.
This style works most of the time, but can be portentous and artificial. The movie's open-ended final sequence functions more like a minimalist stage piece than a dramatization of how actual people behave in a real-life situation.
Unsweetened by any score and unwilling to supply an emotional payoff, the film sometimes plays more like anthropology than cinema. It's his actors' authenticity that places Life & Nothing More in a specific place and time, validating Mendez Esparza's general observations about the American underclasses.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.