Though it takes place in Tallahassee, Florida, the independent drama Life & Nothing More might be described as a foreign film. Antonio Méndez Esparza, who wrote and directed it, is a Spanish émigré who’s lived in the U.S. for a number of years, and he brings to the drama an outsider’s perspective that often suggests that of an ethnographer. He likes to keep his camera at a slight remove from the action, resulting in visual compositions that balance one’s sense of characterization with a sense of social milieu. The nonprofessional cast improvised all of the dialogue, and their contributions heighten the ethnographic vibe. Méndez Esparza, often employing static long takes, allows vernacular speech patterns to shape the action as much as any of the physical behavior. Moreover, the dialogue is so consistently robust that you may not realize for a while that Life & Nothing More contains no music. Even the passages of silence, which register as punctuation in the drama, contribute to the musicality of the speech.
The film begins on a bus, where a 30- something woman named Gina (Regina Williams) sits with her 14-year-old son, Andrew (Andrew Bleechington). Méndez Esparza situates his camera near the driver’s seat and points it back so that we take in all of the passengers—it’s only through the dialogue that we realize the mother and son are the main characters. Gina is upset with Andrew for reasons that don’t become clear until the next scene; when she demands that he get up and move to another seat because she doesn’t want to look at him, her anger, presented out of context, is almost comic. We only understand why she’s so angry when the director cuts to a courtroom where an offscreen judge explains that Andrew has been breaking into parked cars. The judge sentences Andrew to probation but makes it clear that he’s on thin ice. Méndez Esparza then cuts to the bus ride home, the camera in the same position as before, with mother and son already sitting apart.
For roughly the next 20 minutes, Life & Nothing More centers on Andrew in his nascent efforts to improve himself. Méndez Esparza shows the boy meeting with an adult family friend who stresses that he needs to stay out of trouble, doing lawn work with other at-risk youth, and attending a class where an officer instructs a room full of young men about how they can avoid jail time. In between these scenes, we see Andrew caring patiently for his three-year-old sister while Gina is away at work; however brief, these shots speak to the boy’s inherent good nature. Andrew doesn’t seem like a criminal, but at the same time, Méndez Esparza doesn’t provide any clues as to the boy’s aspirations apart from not committing crimes. Viewers might assume that he’s simply impressionable, having made bad decisions as a result of peer pressure. In any case, the adults in his life try to capitalize on his impressionability, filling his head with lessons on the need to do right.
Only later, during a scene of Andrew’s meeting with a school counselor, does Méndez Esparza reveal that the boy’s father is in jail for aggravated assault. Andrew divulges this information only when pressured, and even then he’s coy about the details—and about the fact that he doesn’t want to maintain a relationship with his father. Still, one sees that he remains his father’s son when, shortly after the scene with the counselor, Andrew and his friends break into another parked car at night. It’s a short scene, but it makes a strong impression, showing how the boy is trapped in a cycle of criminal behavior that started when he was too young to recognize it.
From here, Life & Nothing More switches gears and follows Gina for a while. We learn that she works in a diner and earns so little that she can’t afford to make necessary repairs on her car. (During her conversation with an employee of an auto body shop, we intuit that even the $55 fee to have the car towed is a big expense for her.) She lives, it seems, in a permanent state of exasperation. When a stranger, Robert (Robert Williams), appears at the diner one night and begins making advances toward her, she rejects him flat out—clearly she doesn’t have the time or the patience for another man in her life. Yet Robert keeps coming back to the diner and gradually wears down her resolve, and the two enter into a relationship. This relationship becomes the focus of the narrative, eventually overwhelming the story of Andrew’s fraught path to self-improvement. That’s not to say that Méndez Esparza loses the other plot; rather, he shows how Gina, in devoting some much-needed attention to herself, loses sight of her son. This oversight will catch up with her in the film’s tragic final act.
On a similar note, the film is defined as much by what Méndez Esparza doesn’t show of American society as by what he does. The director shot Life & Nothing More during and shortly after the 2016 presidential election, yet barring a single conversation between Gina and her coworkers about the candidates and a shot of them watching TV news on election night, the larger political context remains outside the bounds of the story. When Gina and her coworkers complain that life won’t change for them regardless of who gets elected, the filmmaker suggests this is all we need to know. These characters see their concerns as too immediate to be resolved by change at the national level—staying financially afloat or out of trouble is more than enough to occupy their attention. In his vivid depiction of the characters’ daily lives, which slowly becomes immersive in spite of the detached camerawork, Méndez Esparza invites us to share in their perspective. v