“Are you free, dead or in jail?” a character asks in Life and Nothing More, neatly summing up the existential situation of its characters, and perhaps of all of us. The trials and tribulations of a thirtysomething single mother and her son are the focus of Antonio Mendez Esparza’s stylistically very different follow-up to his well-received Mexican immigrant debut Here and There. Located somewhere between family drama and social crit, the quiet but intense Life stands out mainly for the compelling naturalism of its non-pro performances and for a script which teeters dangerously on the edge of preachiness without falling in. Despite losing its poise over the last half hour, it looks set to enhance its director’s reputation as a compassionate chronicler of so-called “marginal” lives.
The grandiose-seeming title suggests an over-ambitious piece that will try and say it all, but Life’s dramatic focus remains tightly on its three central characters. The early part of the film focuses on Andrew (Andrew Bleechington), a 14-year-old hovering somewhere between the freedom and jail categories. He’s had a brush with the law and is surrounded on all sides by people telling him to stay out of trouble: Therapists and educators seems to have sprung up around Andrew, none of whom understand what’s inside him. There’s the suggestion that if everyone weren’t telling the boy the whole time to stay clean, then he might actually do so. As someone says, when you’re Andrew’s age, they keep you in the system, and indeed things seem set up to drive him toward America’s lucrative prison industry.
Moving and finely observed.
Andrew’s father is himself in jail. But at the insistence of his tough but insecure mother Regina, a force of nature played with great power and sensitivity by Regina Williams, Andrew is forbidden from seeing his old man. The focus then switches, for most of the rest of the duration, onto Regina herself. She works as a waitress and tries to raise not only Andrew but his 3-year-old sister (Ry’Nesia Chambers.) Regina has just about enough time to live, but nothing more.
Embittered with men in general after the breakdown of her marriage, Regina violently takes out her frustrations on Andrew. As a result, he’s sullen and unsmiling, a curiously passive boy who feels tremendously strongly his father’s absence; it’s an absence embodied in one powerfully moving scene in which Andrew reads to himself a letter from prison. That said, there’s a richness and intensity about Regina’s emotional journey through the film that makes Andrew’s seem pale by comparison.
When silver-tongued Robert (Robert Williams) walks into the restaurant and starts hitting on Regina, her initial reaction is a big, cynical ‘no.’ But after some effort and a few ellipses — Mendez Esparza is big on ellipses, sometimes a little too emphatic — she breaks down and soon Robert is living with them. Further tensions ensue, and there’s one Big Event too many through the film’s relatively incident-heavy, less nuanced second half.
Esparza has done terrific work with his cast of non-pros, and several exchanges — particularly those between Regina and Robert — drip with an engaging realism that can only have been the result of guided improvisation. One particular moment, when Regina asks Robert why he hasn’t asked whether she has kids, is beautifully observed, shot and played; indeed, the whole emotional cat-and-mouse sequence between the pair is bravura work from all concerned.
There’s the real sense that the viewer is privy to scenes of a private family life unfolding. But stylistically Esparza and lenser Barbu Balasoiu have entirely foregone the cliched hand-held camera so beloved of intimate dramas like this, opting instead for elegant, unobtrusive still shots, often from the middle distance across framing spaces, which seem to keep us at a respectful distance from events and which invite contemplation rather than involvement.
Rhythmically, things move along at a fair pace throughout, with Santiago Oviedo’s sometimes aggressive editing ever more in evidence as the events pile up: On one occasion, a new scene kicks a little over-eagerly into the middle of a dialogue.
Like Moonlight, from which it’s very different but with which it will invite inevitable comparison, Life and Nothing More is about lots of things — about families, boyhood, the institutional obstacles standing in the way of African-Americans, privilege and systemic racism — and in this regard, it feels somewhat unfocused. But that said, there are multiple forces arrayed against this family’s togetherness, and Mendez Esparza’s script clearly suggests that the links between these forces is a kind of conspiracy.
That life is harder for some than for others is a tale told too often, but it’s always worth repeating, especially when done with the craft shown here. The phrase “it’s just what it is” is repeated a couple of times, like a motto, and perhaps in the end, Life and Nothing More is about the obligatory resignation to circumstance, the inability to dream, which is so much a part of its characters’ lives. This is why its quietly optimistic final scene, earned by Regina, is, for all its slow staginess, so moving.
Production company: Aqui y Alla Films
Cast: Andrew Bleechington, Regina Williams, Robert Williams, Ry’Nesia Chambers
Director-screenwriter: Antonio Mendez Esparza
Producers: Pedro Hernandez Santos, Alvaro Portanet Hernandez, Amadeo Hernandez Bueno
Executive producers: Paul E. Cohen, Victor Nunez, Antonio Mendez Esparza
Director of photography: Barbu Balasoiu
Production designer: Claudia Gonzalez
Editor: Santiago Oviedo
Casting director: Ivo Huahua
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema)
Sales: Film Constellation