Wikipedia defines neo-realism as “stories set amongst the poor and the working class, filmed on location, frequently using non-professional actors”. Life and Nothing More (opening at Oakland’s Grand Lake Theater on Friday, Oct. 26; no play dates are currently scheduled in Berkeley) is a near-perfect example of the style: shot and set in Lee, Florida in the months before and after the 2016 Presidential election, the film relates the struggles of a working-class family portrayed by an all-amateur cast.
Produced with Spanish money and helmed by Madrid-born director Antonio Méndez Esparza – whose previous feature, 2012’s Aquí y allá detailed the challenges faced by a Mexican family whose patriarch returns home after years working in the United States – Life and Nothing More examines the efforts of a working-class African-American woman to keep her head above water and her family together. Based on a loose narrative framework determined collaboratively by the director and the actors, the film is an impressive second feature from Esparza, who allowed his cast to adlib most of their dialogue.
Regina (Regina Williams) lives with her teen son Andrew (Andrew Bleechington) and three-year-old daughter Ry’nesia (Williams’ real-life daughter, Ry’nesia Chambers) in Lee, the tiny north Florida community where she waits tables at the Red Onion Grill. Dad is largely out of the picture: serving time for aggravated assault, he writes the occasional admonitory letter to Andrew, whose recent conviction for breaking into cars has left him on the cusp of serious trouble.
Diner customer Robert (Robert Williams) takes a fancy to Regina; she’s cautious, but his calm and serious demeanor wins her over and he’s allowed to move in with the family. Andrew doesn’t take kindly to the new man of the house, however, and words (as well as threats) are exchanged. An unfortunate encounter with a white family in a local park — clearly inspired by similar incidents across the country — further compound the youngster’s troubles.
None of the dramatic developments in Life and Nothing More are particularly surprising or revelatory: life for the working poor is a challenge (should Regina get the car repaired and towed, or abandon it?), relationships are fraught (as gentle as he is, Robert is too stubborn to give ground to Andrew), and growing up is difficult – especially when you’re a Black teenager sitting quietly on a park bench. No matter: events are depicted with refreshing honesty, and viewers will become deeply engaged with the characters.
While the award-winning Life and Nothing More succeeds thanks to its ensemble cast, it’s Williams’ understated but affecting performance that will stick with you. There’s a successful acting career waiting for her if she’s interested.
‘The War at Home’
Judging from the newsreel that prefaces the recently restored 1979 documentary The War At Home (opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas this Friday), Madison, Wisconsin was a pretty sedate place in 1963 (“Madison is the American prescription… the All-American town,” proclaims the newsreel’s narrator), but the presence of a University of Wisconsin campus and the expanding military involvement in Southeast Asia quickly changed things. Madison saw its first anti-war protests in October 1963, and they continued with increasing intensity well into the 1970s.
Nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 1980 Academy Awards, The War at Home features contemporaneous interviews with school administrators, police officials and anti-war protesters, including once and future Madison Mayor Paul Soglin (he’s still mayor today!). Director Glenn Silber will be on-hand to take questions following two screenings this coming weekend.