The movies, as Vittorio De Sica’s neorealist classic Bicycle Thieves proved way, way back in 1948, can movingly convey the narrow margin that separates the working poor from disaster. But many filmmakers find it difficult to practice restraint given the temptation to elevate and sentimentalize their characters while upping their daily hardships to the point of melodramatic tragedy.
In the Florida-set Life & Nothing More, opening Friday, Oct. 26 (at the Alamo Drafthouse in San Francisco, the Grand Lake in Oakland and the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael), writer-director Antonio Méndez Esparza balances the essence of inner lives with larger social forces and big-picture moralizing. The film opens on 14-year-old Andrew (played by Andrew Bleechington), a taciturn black kid seemingly unaffected by his introduction to the justice system. But his mom, Regina (Regina Williams), who’s raising Andrew and his three-year-old sister on her own (her ex-husband is in prison) while working in a diner, feels the screws tightening even more.
Regina is a hard case, but gradually she responds to a suitor offering the possibility of comfort and support. Andrew’s reaction to the interloper makes Regina’s life even tougher, but Life & Nothing More—like Charles Burnett’s piercing Killer of Sheep, made exactly four decades ago in Los Angeles—makes us see that domestic pressures are exacerbated by external forces like economic anxiety, pernicious racism and lack of opportunity.
Esparza employs time-honored neorealist techniques like nonprofessional actors and longer-than-average takes, but he avoids the contemporary cliché of handheld cameras. His approach works not to distract us from Regina and Andrew’s everyday struggles, and to insinuate us into their reality.