Somber and moody, with assured direction by Ava DuVernay overseeing an exceedingly at-ease cast, the mood poem that is “Middle of Nowhere” is one of the best little films of the year. This presentation from Participant Media and the DuVernay-founded African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement (AaFFRM) will birth in select cities throughout October, a pregnant nine months after the sophomore fictional feature from publicist-turned-writer-director DuVernay won the Best Director award (the first for an African American woman, and beating out Benh Zeitlin, helmer of the Katrina-inspired “Beasts of the Southern Wild”) at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. The slow-but-very-determined pace of this soft-spoken stand-by-your-man tale follows a young, educated, striving for the middle class wife and her unwavering support over four-plus years to make a strained relationship work between herself and her imprisoned husband.
Emayatzy Corinealdi shines as Ruby, whose outward beauty hides the emotional rags that find her wondering and wandering just as the hope of freedom for Derek (Omari Hardwick) might be dashed by a prison commotion that seems to implicate him. And halfway through this taught drama, when you see Ruby emotionally punched in the gut with some hitherto unknown revelations, you’ll hear the whole audience offering a sympathetic moan. [This might be my only quibble with the wonderful script; why would Derek’s attorney (Sharon Lawrence) or her assistant be so uninformed of what should be the presumably transparently available “internal disciplinary warning” in question.] As the shock rushes up within her body, Ruby’s eyes roam around the parole proceeding in hopes of regaining her wavering composure. Her face is appropriately caught half in focus, half out; half in darkness, half in light.
Ruby, having given up her medical education to support her husband’s release from incarceration, settles into her soft-spoken, determined routine. Taking the long bus rides to and from the California penitentiary, where she pushes Derek to accept her terms about their conjugal future. Where he sees an eight-year term, she, with hushed forcefulness, impresses on him that it’s only five, with time off for good behavior. She’s a woman in desperate need of her dream coming true, despite the nightmare that has engulfed her family. Of the latter, there’s her mother, Ruth (Lorraine Toussaint), and her sister, Rosie (Edwina Findley), a single parent, all of whom depend on one another for timely support.
When Ruby takes on extra nursing shifts, she offers the “I’m just trying to catch up on a few things” to Ruth. There’s an obvious rift between the women, but Ruby can’t bring herself to be totally honest with her mother. Or, initially, with Brian (British-born David Oyelowo doing a dead-on American accent), a kind and considerate Los Angeles bus driver who is attracted to and then distracted by his demure passenger. He brings his own family baggage to the equation.
The bittersweet story stirs up Ruby’s inner turmoil as she wavers between two men, forcing her into further soul searching that brings on a harsh decision at the film’s end. Whether you think it will be Derek or Brian, DuVernay brings a brutal honesty to the situation. With the support of marvelous hand-held, low-light, slow-moving camerawork by Bradford Young, slow fades by editor Spencer Averick, and an extremely enmeshing score by Kathryn Bostic (as well as the songs snipped throughout the soundtrack courtesy of music supervisor Morgan Rhodes), you’re propelled forward right alongside Ruby, sharing the seat next to her on daily commute.
Corinealdi’s absorbing, emotionally-driven performance is just stunning in its simplicity, although all the actors deserve commendation for striking characterizations under DuVernay’s probing, straight-forward direction. The lion’s share of the on-the-screen tempo is provided by the shell-shocked, socially lifeless Ruby. She’s the equivalent of a boat that has lost its rudder, adrift in a sea of loneliness while searching for a love-strong anchor. Obviously, she’s living in a jail within the confines of her own world, incarcerated behind a seemingly self-defeating mix of love, hope, and breach of trust.
There is hope among the broken souls populating the “Middle of Nowhere,” and a heartfelt thank you to Ava DuVernay and her cast and crew for sharing her gem with us. Painful and powerful in its simplicity, it’s a film worth watching more than once for its sheer emotional truths.
Review by Elias Savada.