A class act and understated to a fault, writer-director Ava DuVernay’s sophomore effort is one of those movies that’s more admirable for what it doesn’t do than what it does. DuVernay won Best Director at this past year’s Sundance Film Festival, I guess with good reason. Her Middle of Nowhere is tactful, formally controlled and occasionally devastating. It’s an expert piece of craftsmanship that’s missing something elusive.
The incandescent Emayatzy Corinealdi stars as Ruby, first glimpsed giving up med school so she can take phone calls from her husband Derek (Omari Hardwick), a nonviolent offender working off an eight-year prison stretch for reasons that are annoyingly left unsaid until far too late in the picture.
Ruby takes the bus two hours each way to visit her husband every week at the penitentiary. The first clues that we’re seeing something special come from the friendships she forges on these endless rides. There’s an easy rapport amongst these semi-widows, and we are not used to watching movies about people in such circumstances.
Indeed, Ruby’s in a fix. She’s a registered nurse working nights to try and pay off some costly legal bills. Her sister and nephew hang around sometimes, mostly acting as protection from Ruby’s angry, been-there-done-that mom (Lorraine Toussaint). Ma’s a tough cookie, often bitterly wondering aloud how her kids ended up the way they did, mostly blaming herself, but still leaving plenty more to go around.
Not much happens in Middle of Nowhere. DuVernay drops you into these characters’ lives and allows plenty of time for you to sort things out for yourself. Dream-like flashbacks of old domestic bliss cut nastily to present-day loneliness, with Ruby putting everything on hold for the sake of her man, measuring time in years instead of minutes. DuVernay’s approach is reserved, to say the least. Shooting in widescreen on digital video, cinematographer Bradford Young hangs back, quietly observing behavior from frames constricted within doorways or other obstructions, always emphasizing the movie’s cramped close-quarters. There’s no escape from this sentence, and the picture dwells for eons on Corinealdi’s effortlessly expressive face.
I should love this movie, but something about it kept me at arm’s length. DuVernay’s even-keeled temperament is a little too cool for the room. She aestheticizes the sadness with so much strict, formal intelligence that the movie lacks visceral impact. Never is this felt more than at the halfway mark, when all of our and Ruby’s illusions are shattered with a brusque couple lines of dialogue. Middle of Nowhere eschews melodrama, so it takes a minute or two for the shocking revelation to sink in. Immediately following, the abrupt switch to slow-motion and misty-eyed music cues will make you wish DuVernay held it all together for just a little bit longer.
Those asphyxiating compositions gradually expand as Ruby befriends a bus driver, well-played by David Oyelowo. Their halting courtship, complete with subtitled matinees on Hollywood’s Westside, hints at a larger world that’s probably beyond this picture’s tunnel vision. The frame doesn’t just open up when Oyelowo is onscreen; the whole movie seems to finally breathe a bit. DuVernay backs off and lets us enjoy their romantic chemistry. At least, for a little while.
I enjoyed Middle of Nowhere mostly for what it doesn’t do next: There’s no dramatic confrontation or arbitrary movie-ending bloodshed. This is a picture about people just trying to find a way to muddle through with their broken lives, and it’s impossible not to root for Ruby as she slowly spreads her wings.
It’s great to see portrayals of African-American life absent Hollywood’s usual buffoonery—or Tyler Perry in a dress—but Middle of Nowhere’s stringent humorlessness becomes a bit wearying. It’s an exceedingly well-made movie, so much so that it’s almost lifeless at times. DuVernay could probably leave the camera in a close-up on Corinealdi’s face for a couple of hours and come out with a watchable movie. But this one is sorely lacking a subplot, which becomes a drag over 100 or so minutes. There’s just not enough going on beyond the handful of speaking roles.
Thankfully, Middle of Nowhere does almost everything else right. It’s thoughtfully crafted and shines a light on people too often marginalized by Hollywood movies. But it made me wish somebody would open a window or something, and let the world in.