Antonio Méndez Esparza’s follow-up to his debut, Aquí y Allá, is a sensitive, beautifully paced film that lives up to its title: Life and Nothing More. Inspired by Italian neorealism, Esparza employs a cinema vérité style to tell the story of Regina (Regina Williams), an African American single mother struggling to get by in Florida. Regina has a delightful three-year-old daughter (Ry’Nesia Chambers) and a quiet, distant fourteen-year-old son, Andrew (Andrew Bleechington), who is starting to get in trouble with the law, hanging around with bad kids and carrying around a knife. Regina works menial minimum-wage jobs to try to keep the family afloat while the father of her children is in prison. Robert (Robert Williams), a newcomer to the town, starts trying to charm her, wanting to take her out, but Regina is suspicious of his intentions, as is Andrew. But when Robert shows the least bit of threatening anger as he and Andrew clash, Regina has some difficult decisions to make, which grow more complicated when other facts come to light.
Cinematographer Barbu Balasoiu keeps his camera slow and steady as it lingers on scenes with very little or no dialogue, maintaining a tense mood that hovers over the film. As with Aquí y Allá, which was shot in Mexico, most of the actors are nonprofessionals in their first film, which heightens the reality. Regina Williams gives a strong, tenderhearted performance as the mother, a woman dedicated to making a better life for her children but continually runs into roadblocks beyond her control. Writer-director Esparza often focuses on her eyes as she watches events unfold, saying nothing but wanting to fight back more and more without risking the safety of her family. The film also smartly explores the incarceration gap between blacks and white without getting overtly political. Robert Williams (no relation) is engaging, with just the right hint of mystery and possible danger, while Bleechington reveals much with very few words, a boy who just can’t seem to say or do the right thing (when he speaks at all). Winner of awards at film festival around the world in addition to the Independent Spirit John Cassavetes Award, Life and Nothing More is an honest, nuanced look at race and class in twenty-first-century America, an intelligent and heartbreaking depiction of what life is like for so many people today.