Director Ava DuVernay picked up a Best Director Award at this year's Sundance Film Festival (the first black female director to do so) for Middle of Nowhere. It is evident DuVernay's second feature is being rewarded for assuredly bringing a little explored story to the forefront with a strong yet understated cinematic voice.
DuVernay's film (she also wrote the screenplay) focuses on registered nurse Ruby (Emayatzy Corinealdi, in a breakout performance) dealing with the incarceration of her husband, Derek (Omari Hardwick), who has been sentenced to eight years in jail. The situation leaves her entire life in limbo and also wears on an already tension-fraught relationship with her intimidating mother (played by Lorraine Toussaint).
The opening scene, featuring Ruby and her husband seated across from each other during a prison visit, sketches out the film's parameters: Ruby vows to be there for him when his sentence ends, grimly hoping of the possibility of an early release. The devotion of Ruby, who has dropped out of med school, ignoring Derek's protestations so she can field his calls from prison, is palpable. It's also apparent that despite Derek's constrained physicality that he's no unrepentant thug, rather he's a man who has made some ill-advised choices.
DuVernay's close-ups further the theme of character complexity, as we sense the turmoil and uncertainty in their inner lives. In training her lens mainly on Corinealdi, it's hard to go wrong — she may have found a future star.
While Ruby is a passionate character when she stands up for what she believes in, she's actually very introverted. Corinealdi's face instinctively conveys her character's emotional range and vulnerability in the film's many quiet moments, enhanced by the luminous work of excellent fast-rising cinematographer Bradford Young (Pariah).
You do sense where things are building towards once a particularly significant plot development comes to light and bus driver Brian (David Oyelowo) begins to be featured more prominently. But Corinealdi remains a riveting presence, handling the necessary character development with unwavering subtlety and grace.
Bolstered by its very strong cast, believable script and an intimately warm soundtrack (Me'Shell Ndegeocello and Little Dragon, natch), Middle of Nowhere underlines why DuVernay was acknowledged at Sundance, as the themes of imprisonment — physical, mental and emotional — resonate long after viewing. (Forward Movement)