Regina (Regina Williams), a black North Florida waitress living somewhere below the poverty line, snaps at her 14-year-old son, Andrew (Andrew Bleechington), after he’s been arrested for at least the second time: “This is your life you’re fucking up, not mine!” It’s one of the only lies that she tells in Antonio Méndez Esparza’s “Life and Nothing More,” an elliptical and documentary-like drama that’s endowed with sober honesty in almost every scene.
For better or worse, Regina’s hardscrabble existence is inextricably intertwined with that of her teenage child, and that of the kid’s incarcerated father, and — to a certain extent — even that of a new love interest named Robert (Robert Williams), an unambiguously interested stranger who first hits on Regina while she’s at work. She’s the nucleus of an unstable cell in a hostile body, forced to manage her own problems and find the support she needs while also trying to raise her son in a racist system that turns black men against each other and tears black families apart.
It’s a common predicament that Esparza portrays with an intimate touch. His second feature may address institutional crises, but it never reduces these flesh-and-blood characters to mere symbols of the black experience; “Life and Nothing More” may be shot with the unblinking attention of Frederick Wiseman’s films — and share their same broad scope of concerns — but it’s always true to the tenderness of its title. Even the scenes that offer explicit social commentary (i.e. the ones directly involving law enforcement or the justice system) are pitched at a personal level, more focused on these particular characters than on the oppression they represent. Among its other virtues, this raw, poignant, and non-didactic movie is a compelling reminder that you can glean a lot more about power structures by looking at people than you can glean about people by looking at power structures.
“Life and Nothing More” is set in the days leading up to the 2016 election, but no one in this story seems to care. You don’t get the sense that Regina is much of a voter. For one thing, it’s hard to say when she would even be able to cast a ballot (“I don’t have free time” is the closest thing she has to a catchphrase). For another, she isn’t especially compelled to participate in a society that sees women like her as product suppliers for the prison system, and even now — with two years of the Trump administration in the rear-view — there’s no judging her for that.
The film’s opening minutes lay it all on the line. Regina and Andrew sit next to each other on a public bus, Esparza acclimating us to the first of his long-take tableaux. Everything is in focus, and our eyes are free to wander where they please, looking for all the easy answers they’ll never find. There’s no hand-holding, no close-ups, no absolution. “Get the fuck away from me,” Regina says to her kid. “I’m done.” Andrew is occasionally too withdrawn to take hold as a character, but he’s downright silent here.
Esparza then cuts to the court, where the teen is being roasted by his probation officer for skipping his counseling sessions; he won’t speak, so Regina has to apologize for him. Then back to the bus — from the same angle as before — only this time mother and son are sitting apart. Neither one of them is at fault for the rift between them, but that doesn’t stop it from growing. By the time someone asks Andrew if he’s “free, dead, or in jail?,” even the most privileged viewer — even someone who thought thought they were buying a ticket to “Life Itself” — will appreciate how those conditions aren’t mutually exclusive.
“Life and Nothing More” is light on plot, and most engaging when it eschews incident altogether. Other than Robert meeting Regina and trying to wheedle his way into her life, not much really happens. Esparza, a Spanish-born filmmaker whose only previous feature was 2012’s “Aquí y Allá,” doesn’t rely on story to drive the narrative. And yet, the film is immediately gripping on a moment-to-moment basis because of Esparza’s ability to mine genuine compassion from patience and perseverance. The longer a scene takes to unfold, the more riveting it becomes.
But persistence is the name of the game, and Esparza’s steadfast cast of first-time actors seems to know it in their bones. There isn’t a false note between them, though Williams’ lead performance is especially powerful for how she navigates between rage and responsibility, always returning to the love that binds those two modes together. She’s incredible during the scenes when Robert is first wooing Regina; she needs the support, but she’s skeptical of the intrusion, and Williams finds a rare and all-too-believable urgency in how she puts that all out there, because there’s no use in pretending otherwise.
The film can’t help but flail whenever she’s off-screen. Save for an uncomfortable scene that illustrates the baton handoff from systemic racism to personal racism, the decision to refocus the back half of the story on Andrew tends to distract from the beating heart of this story, even though it builds to an epilogue that will reverberate inside of you for days. Still, “Life and Nothing More” — much like life itself — never stops moving forward, and the lingering power of this plaintive and affecting portrait comes from Regina’s natural ability to find strength in that. How does she keep going? “One foot at a time, day by day, until the light at the end of the tunnel has no choice but to come your way.”
“Life and Nothing More” is now playing in New York, opens in L.A. and the Bay Area on 10/26, and will expand across the country in the weeks to come. The full schedule can be found here.