Spanish-born filmmaker Antonio Méndez Esparza’s intimate, naturalistic and unvarnished drama “Life and Nothing More,” winner of 2018’s Independent Spirit John Cassavetes Award (recognizing movies budgeted under $500,000), speaks volumes about our country’s ongoing state of racism, poverty and criminal injustice, without didacticism or pandering.
It’s a vital, singularly crafted film that simply tells it — or more specifically shows it — like it is through the eyes of a struggling African American single mother and the adolescent son she desperately wants to keep out of trouble against the mounting odds. It’s hardly a new story, but it’s one that, especially in our fractious, often retrograde sociopolitical climate, bears repeating.
Regina (Regina Williams) is a minimum wage-earning waitress living in a cramped northern Florida apartment with her 14-year-old son, Andrew (Andrew Bleechington), and toddler daughter Ry’nesia (Ry’nesia Chambers). That the children’s father is in prison hangs over the proceedings, making the forceful Regina generally wary of men while giving Andrew the anti-role model Regina hopes will keep the boy scared straight.
Despite a brush with car theft, Andrew is a good, largely responsible if taciturn kid. He’s curious about the absent dad his mother forbids him to visit, and is clearly unsure about how to navigate a world inherently stacked against him, even with some guidance from well-meaning neighbors and counselors.
Director Esparza’s script, which clearly allowed for substantial improvisation from his intensely good, mostly non-professional cast, alternates between Regina and Andrew’s day-to-day existences.
We see Regina at her exhausting restaurant job, yakking with her co-workers, tending to Ry’nesia, harshly hectoring Andrew (she’s tough love incarnate — and sometimes just plain tough) and exploring new work opportunities. Meanwhile, we watch Andrew at school, hanging with his buddies, doing chores, babysitting his sister, playing football and wandering in contemplative mode.
Then there’s Robert (Robert Williams), an upbeat, persistent guy in his late 30s who meets Regina at her restaurant and, after lots of sparring and sweet talk, persuades the surly, resistant waitress to go on a date. They click, more or less, and Robert eventually moves in with Regina, to Andrew’s chagrin. The ill-fated arrangement produces a far-reaching consequence that will inform the rest of Regina’s journey.
The movie, which at times echoes “Moonlight” and “The Florida Project,” is all so real and gradually immersive it can feel as if we’re merely tagging along on a couple of strangers’ hardscrabble lives, observing from a respectful yet still gripping distance thanks to cinematographer Barbu Balasoiu’s documentary-style lensing and hypnotic use of stationary, extended medium-long shots.
Williams, an Independent Spirit Award-nominee for best female lead, may have been an untrained performer before “Life,” but her commanding, deeply felt work here bodes well for a solid acting career. In the event there is, well, nothing more, she will have made an indelible mark on screen.
‘Life and Nothing More’
Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes
Playing: Starts Friday, Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica; Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena