Some movies obsess about saving the world — from natural disasters, supervillains, and other things that might destroy us all. In its own modest but no-less-ambitious way, Antonio Méndez Esparza’s “Life and Nothing More” narrows that concern to a single individual, detailing what it would take to rescue a 14-year-old boy from being swallowed up by the system, incarcerated and forgotten by lawmakers and enforcers who think in terms of figures, rather than individuals. Set in and around Tallahassee — the corner of Florida where the crime rate is highest, and where juveniles from single-parent homes are so easily derailed from fulfilling their potential — this no-frills portrait of teenage Andrew (Andrew Bleechington) and his minimum-wage mom, Regina (Regina Washington), is one of the year’s most essential films.
At least, it would be if audiences could be compelled to seek out this understated indie masterwork amid all the bigger-budget, more attention-grabbing competition. Crafted in overt contrast with more spectacular megaplex entertainment, “Life and Nothing More” is an urgent and unequivocal demonstration that black lives matter, poignantly captured — at a time when some insist that such stories can only be told by those who belong to the demographics they represent — by a Spanish-born helmer who developed the project in close collaboration with a nonprofessional, nearly all-black cast.
Esparza’s sophomore feature follows his Cannes Critics’ Week-winning debut “Aquí y Allá,” also set far from home (in the Mexican municipality of Copanatoyac), and was constructed in a similar way: The director carefully picked a location and went there with an open mind and seemingly bottomless sense of empathy, crafting films that forgo traditional narrative in favor of a sequence of vignettes — hardly random but potentially “mundane” in the eyes of mainstream moviegoers — that reveal the socioeconomic reality of the people he finds there, resulting in a more profound connection to and understanding of folks we might previously have dismissed as being far different from ourselves.
“Aquí y Allá” was a promising start, but “Life and Nothing More” marks an important step forward, as spare and essential as its title suggests: Like “Boyhood” and “Moonlight” before it, here is a film that is committed to doing justice to the drama of everyday life, finding poetry in the familiar. Constructed not of contrived thrills but authentic real-world challenges — getting by without a working car, trying to raise two kids with their dad out of the picture — “Life” elegantly and intuitively presents the complex system of class- and race-based prejudices that conspires against an angry African-American youth who already has one strike against him when the movie opens (he’s on probation for breaking into cars).
Over the course of two hours spanning several months in Regina and Andrew’s lives, the film creates a remarkable sense of intimacy with the characters, easily overcoming whatever difficulty one might initially expect from Esparza and DP Barbu Balasoiu’s technique of observing such personal moments at arm’s length. The opening scene, for instance, consists of a static shot on a city bus, during which audiences can’t immediately tell who the main characters are: Andrew and his mother are partly obstructed by other passengers, and it is only after Regina starts reprimanding her son that our attention focuses where it’s intended.
In theory, that somewhat dissociated approach could be somewhat alienating — as in the opening scene of Michael Haneke’s “Amour,” where the central couple sits unidentified among strangers in a concert audience, or else the long-shot, long-take style of Ruben Östlund’s “Play,” wherein ruthless bullying is depicted from an ambivalent distance. In “Life,” however, the untrained ensemble proves so natural and their circumstances so relatable that we are swiftly drawn into their situation. Identification comes quickly, even though the characters go on to behave in vexing and sometimes contradictory ways — as in the crucial scene where Andrew, hanging out on a park bench in a predominantly white neighborhood, makes a split-second decision that could change the course of his future.
Look closely at that scene, which is unconventionally shot in crisp high definition from about 50 feet away: Andrew has his back to the camera, which creates a mounting sense of tension, since we have seen the young man lose his temper before. Now, the desire to see his face — to gauge what he must be feeling in this moment, cornered by a couple telling him what he can and can’t do — becomes almost unbearable. The camera holds for two minutes before cutting to a close-up, and even then, confronted with Andrew’s blank expression, we can only guess what’s going through his head … especially after what comes next.
The artistic choices in that scene reflect the brilliance (but also what many will find frustrating) in Esparza’s approach, which carefully selects moments that reveal the characters without judgment or manipulation. Whereas a Hollywood director might use subjective framing or emotional soundtrack cues to nudge audiences’ reactions in a certain way, Esparza strips away nearly all those techniques to a pure, neorealist approach: life and nothing more.
The film shows Andrew, looking disaffected but clearly seething with resentment at the world, alternately listening to and challenging the authority figures in his life (his parole officer, the school guidance counselor, a social worker). It open-mindedly watches as Regina deflects a smooth-talking suitor (Robert Williams, no relation to the actress) who’s just charming enough to be worth a chance, and it later observes as that budding relationship takes a nasty turn in exactly the direction she anticipated. In lesser hands, that outcome would qualify as cliché, but here, it hardly seems preordained: At any moment, anything can happen. The system may be stacked against these characters, but their fates are in their own hands.
Andrew doesn’t seem to believe that (Bleechington is completely believable as the disaffected adolescent, to the extent that it feels like tragedy to see someone so young who has already given up on himself), but those around him are determined to steer him right. Even his father, who’s absent until the final seconds of the film, makes an effort to write Andrew from prison and offer him advice on not replicating his mistakes. But the hero here, more impressive than any character in “Black Panther” if only because she’s operating with all the limitations of a normal human being, is Regina. Imperfect though her actions may be at times, she clearly wants what’s best for her family, and Williams conveys that so convincingly, her struggle becomes our own.