Director Matthew Porterfield’s Sollers Point follows Keith (McCaul Lombardi), a low-level drug dealer serving the last week of his nine-month home detention after a short prison stint. He’s stuck sharing a rundown one-story ranch house with his pestering father, Carol (Jim Belushi), in a predominantly white, lower-class corner of Baltimore. Graffiti and artwork cover Keith’s bedroom walls—relics from a past when his artistic prowess hinted at a career and distracted him from the rough, drug-dealing crowds he eventually fell in with. Though Keith is ostensibly free once he gets his ankle bracelet taken off, the economically depressed neighborhood that he wanders through for the remainder of the film offers much of the same hopelessness and lack of opportunity that stymied him in prison.
As Keith tries to turn his life around by making amends with his ex-fiancée, Courtney (Zazie Beetz), and picks up odd jobs to help pay his way, he struggles against both the pull of his local drug connections and a group of low-level gangsters who don’t take kindly to his decision to go straight, especially after he took their help when he was in prison. Even with these threats looming over Keith, Sollers Point remains remarkably low-key in its portrait of a life where the lines between the moral and immoral and the legal and illegal are blurred beyond recognition.
The film presents Keith’s reintegration to society through a series of vignettes which keep him bouncing around his old neighborhood from one house to the next, looking for help from anyone who’s willing to give it. Whether on foot or in a hand-me-down clunker from his sister (Marin Ireland), Keith is always on the move but ultimately going nowhere. Yet even as Porterfield lingers on images which convey the crumbling infrastructure and economic depression that ravage these pockets of his hometown of Baltimore, he’s careful to present Keith not merely as a victim of circumstance.
Keith is both compassionate (paying to have his ex’s lawnmower fixed, picking up snacks for his niece’s birthday despite his lack of funds, even giving a ride to a recovering junky) and a creature of habit, letting opportunities such as an HVAC training class that could have led to steady work slip through his fingers. But the absence of a stable support system proves too costly, leaving Keith adrift and alone in a landscape that was once a home full of love and promise. Sollers Point ultimately conveys the limitations of freedom within towns like this. Thus it’s no surprise that Keith ends the film on foot walking toward an unknown destination with his future as dubious as it ever was.
For its dissection of an impoverished community and a troubled youth fighting to free himself from its constraints, Antonio Méndez Esparza’s Life and Nothing More makes a compelling companion piece to Sollers Point. Set in a small, primarily African-American town in northern Florida, the film follows the exploits of 17-year-old Andrew (Andrew Bleechington) and his single mother, Regina (Regina Williams), who’s also raising a three-year-old daughter. Regina’s struggles to keep Andrew, who’s dealing with probation issues, out of harm’s way are further complicated by her ex-husband’s imprisonment, which left her alone and embittered toward men.
Yet Regina remains full of spit and vinegar, stepping up to the challenges life throws her way, including Robert (Robert Williams), the man who, after much effort, gets Regina to let her guard down. Esparza displays a sharp eye for capturing the intimate details of Regina and Andrew’s difficulties, employing an elliptical structure which subtly explore the rippling effects that Robert’s presence in the household have on the already edgy yet quiet Andrew.
With its restrained, naturalistic performances and visual acuity, Life and Nothing More mines the granular elements of daily life by observing the ways that economic struggle breeds mistrust and fuels conflict through an ever-presence of stress and anxiety. In positioning Robert as neither a wolf in sheep’s clothing nor as a savior or father figure for Andrew, the film wisely sidesteps potential clichés with its willingness to explore the difficulties of forging a new family later in life, especially when it’s hard enough for Regina simply to pay her bills and keep her son out of trouble.
Esparza’s characters feel genuine and lived-in, each with a good heart at their core yet molded into more aggressive, abrasive people by an environment that’s unforgiving in its cruelty and indifference. The film’s final act expands its focus to more directly examine the effects of systemic racism and a justice system designed to assume the guilt of black men, particularly when the accusers are white. But even when its interests shift to the more broadly political and sociological, Life and Nothing More communicates its ideas with the same intimacy and warmth, capturing the humanity of the individual even as they’re revealed to be a helpless cog in the wheel.
The AFI Fest runs from November 9—16.