In his second feature film, “Life and Nothing More,” writer-director Antonio Méndez Esparza delivers exactly what his title promises: An unvarnished cinema verité look at a family dealing with some hard knocks.
At first, the audience sees what the judge does: Another African-American teen on a downward slide. At 14, Andrew (Andrew Bleechington) is in court, as his exasperated mother Gina (Regina Williams) trying to convince a judge that he’s a good kid, and will fulfill the terms of his probation after being accused of breaking into cars in his home town of Tallahassee, Fla.
At home, Gina warns Andrew that he has to fulfill his probation obligations, so he doesn’t end up incarcerated like his father. Andrew has responsibilities, to care for the house and his 3-year-old sister Nesie (Ry’nesia Chambers), while Gina works at a truck stop. Andrew goes to school, and the anger-management classes that are part of his probation, but he’d rather hang out with friends.
At work, Gina fends off the advances of Robert (Robert Williams), a diner customer with romance on his mind. His charms slowly penetrate Gina’s defenses, and soon they are dating — a development that makes Andrew, seeing a new man in his mom’s life, even more sullen and withdrawn.
Esparza presents these life changes in straightforward scenes, unadorned by a musical score or other flourishes. With nonprofessional actors ad-libbing their dialogue, getting to the heart of their experiences and the inability to process them, the movie comes as close to Frederick Wiseman-level documentary as a narrative film can get.
Esparza aims to show Andrew as a man-in-training trying to find his own path, while also depicting him as another cog in a judicial machine that seems as likely to grind him into dust as help him toward the straight and narrow. The movie similarly shows Gina as a woman trying to be her true self, but finding herself blocked by poverty, bad luck and disappointing men.
“Life and Nothing More” doesn’t get preachy about the plight of poor African-American families, but it doesn’t have to. By showing the daily grind of this one family, Esparza lets his film speak for countless others.
‘Life and Nothing More’
Opened October 24 in select cities; opening Friday, November 30, at the Broadway Centre Cinemas (Salt Lake City). Not rated, but probably R for language and suggestions of violence. Running time: 114 minutes.