We seem to be on the cusp of a possible resurgence in minimalist coming-of-age filmmaking, with several works (most notably Amman Abbasi’s Dayveon) successfully subverting classical narratives while set against backgrounds of marginalized and underrepresented communities in the USA. Antonio Méndez Esparza has delivered a unique cinematic experience debating hot-button contemporary socio-cultural stigmas, dissecting the ins-and-outs of the family unit, and highlighting the lifelong grind of working-class life. The end result overflows with a sincere genuinity along with impassioned complexity; often feeling deep from the vein of Robert Bresson (namely Mouchette). Life and Nothing More is a compelling portrait of disaffected youth capturing many of the complicated nuances and compromises that come with entering adulthood as a black man in the present-day United States.
Almost a legal adult, Andrew (Andrew Bleechington) spends his days spinning his wheels, emotionally guarded and self-insulated against the adults around him. His father incarcerated, his mother Regina (Regina Williams) works long hours to support him and his toddler sister (though sometimes striking out to find some moments not defined by parenting or her daily grind). Andrew strives to accomplish his mounting family responsibilities, though violating his probation without much thought to its consequence.
“…Andrew strives to accomplish his mounting family responsibilities, though violating his probation…”
While combating external stigmas and adapting to dramatic life changes, Regina and Andrew struggle to determine their place in each other’s lives, as well as retain some personal autonomy. Clashing over one another’s choices and frames of mind, this conflict drives the pair to an impasse that will define the rest of their lives (and the ending is almost perfect, by the way).
Esparza utilizes almost an entirely non-professional cast improvising the majority of the film, and it couldn’t have been executed any other way. The power of the film comes from the collective experience rather than any one performance or design aspect. That isn’t to say that the cast does not put in stellar and naturalistic performances (especially Williams), or that Claudia González Carbonell’s production design was anything but top-notch. However, I will clearly state the most prominent and deserving star of the whole work is Barbu Balasoiu and his impeccable cinematography, instantly defining every aspect of the story (from the perspective, tone, and pacing). Most scenes are filmed in long-take masters, continuously incorporating prolonged zooms and one-point perspective compositions… it’s all very Kubrickian, and isn’t cheap or simple for aesthetic’s sake; there’s always a focus.
“…how composition, performance, and lighting can all effectually build on one another to form a fully immersive filmic experience.”
One scene, in particular, a single slow zoom-in on the back of Andrew’s head as he sits on a park bench, is made powerful by the ever-present clinking of a switchblade knife being flipped open and closed. However, the lingering, unblinking nature of the shot (and exemplary sound design) allows an undercurrent of sinisterism to evolve naturally, eventually erupting in a mishmash of conflicting emotions.
There are no simple answers to any question, nor are there any points-of-view that are unbiased or guiltless, and that’s exactly true to life (and now we’re back to Bresson). Each scene stuns further than the last on how composition, performance, and lighting can all effectually build on one another to form a fully immersive filmic experience.
Esparza is a sublime directorial talent, possessing a fascinatingly subtle command of his medium with a desire to capture the oft-discarded aspects of life, seemingly pursuing a deeper honesty in the parts of ourselves we choose to ignore regularly. Life and Nothing More is true to its title, and that’s pretty damn impressive.
Life and Nothing More (2018) Directed by Antonio Méndez Esparza. Written by Antonio Méndez Esparza. Starring Andrew Bleechington, Regina Williams, Robert Williams, Ry’nesia Chambers, Eric Trombley.
9 out of 10