Robert Williams (left) and Regina Williams (far right) star in Life and Nothing More (2018), directed by Antonio Méndez Esparza. (All images courtesy of California Film Institute)

Like the rest of the United States, Florida — hit hard by the economic slump and the housing bust — has seen its ups and downs in the past few years, in turn inspiring a series of notable films about the hardships of America’s working class. There was Shawn Baker’s psychologically forced, color-drenched The Florida Project (a disappointing follow-up to the much-lauded, vibrant Tangerine), Patrick Bresnan and Ivete Lucas’s wonderful, keenly observed documentary short Skip Day, and now, Antonio Méndez Esparza’s astute, quietly vigorous feature Life and Nothing More.

At the film’s opening, in March, at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Film Comment Selects series, Esparza, who hails from Spain, explained that, when he found himself unexpectedly living and teaching in Florida, he looked for inspiration in reality, and found his actors at Walmart. The resulting cast, whose most notable members are Regina Williams as Regina and Andrew Bleechington as Andrew, is nothing short of revelatory, a reminder that the delicacy of real-life detail and unscripted scenes can breathe a particular kind of intimacy, a sense of both naturalness and emotional breadth, into fictional cinema.

In the film, Regina is an African-American working mom with a son, Andrew, who is always in minor trouble with the law; she fears he will end up in prison, like his father. We see her in the opening scenes cursing Andrew on the bus, but later, she defends him stoutly at his hearing, where he is being chastised for not showing up for his counseling appointments. This pattern repeats: again and again, Regina’s love proves tough, wounded, desperate, and quick-tempered, yet also unbelievably steady, resilient, and brave. Esparza’s vision of motherhood, as a fortress whose foundations must hold even on the shakiest of grounds, pulls us into a soaring emotional tide, and keeps us entranced, marveling at Williams’s talent and charm as a non-professional actor.

Regina Williams in Life and Nothing More

Esparza didn’t originally intend to include the incarceration of Andrew’s father in his script, but after interviewing Floridian teenagers, he realized that it was a recurring motif in many young people’s lives. He uses the theme obliquely, such as in a scene in which Andrew’s friend (or possibly uncle) tells him a joke about a dealer managing to flash dope in front of a cop who is trying to book him for it — and then dispenses advice on staying clean and upright. Such small details fill in the picture of the tug-and-pull between risk and self-preservation, as willful Andrew keeps mostly to himself. We see him often in the company of passing male figures, whose advice is fueled by personal regrets. How much talking to the young can actually change them is one of the underlying questions that Esparza poses, scene after scene. Regina, for her part, is overworked and stressed out. Since she relies on Andrew for babysitting his little sister and for minor housekeeping, she can quickly turn from solicitous to nagging.

Into this delicate scenario walks Regina’s new boyfriend, Robert (played with compelling intensity by Robert Williams), a sweet-talking charmer with strong convictions, but ultimately, yet another fraught paternal figure. It’s telling that Esparza uses a more improvisational style in his work with the actors, one that allows him to bring in details from their personal lives — for example, as he mentioned in the Film Comment Selects interview, Regina reading poetry. His approach echoes other psychologically expansive films, such as Roberto Minervini’s Stop the Pounding Heart (2013) and The Other Side (2015) and Affonso Uchoa and João Dumans’s Araby (2017), all films whose semi-fictional scenarios draw heavily from real-life situations and, most importantly, the conflicts and tensions suggested and enlivened by the protagonists.

Andrew Bleechington in Life and Nothing More

In Life and Nothing More, Robert and Regina make a winsome on-screen pair, and their slowly burning, tick-for-tat, wisecracking romance provides some of the film’s best scenes. When Robert first tries to pick her up, at a diner where she works, she ends up telling him she’s “just living,” and then, “fuck men,” her sarcastic, know-it-all tone suggesting the underlying sadness that rules her life. Like Uchoa and Dumans, Esparza uses voiceover sparingly yet forcefully, to strengthen our sense of the protagonists’ inner thoughts, particularly Regina’s.

Cinematographer Barba Balasoiu, who worked with Esparza on his previous film, Here and There (2012), exquisitely establishes atmosphere and mood. In Life and Nothing More, he skillfully captures Florida’s makeshift outdoor spaces, cramped, cluttered indoors, and crepuscular, neon-lit diners — a backdrop for heartache Americana-style, where businesses show notable distress, a visual message that pointedly contradicts the “always strive for excellence” motto that Andrew hears from older male companions. Life and Nothing More compellingly illustrates the lives of those trapped in this contradictory landscape, uncertain where else to go.

Life and Nothing More is playing at Film Forum in New York, and starting October 26 it is playing at select locations in Los Angeles and the Bay Area. The film will be released nationally via CFI Releasing.

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Ela Bittencourt

Ela Bittencourt is a critic and cultural journalist, currently based in São Paulo. She writes on art, film and literature, often in the context of social issues and politics.