Editor’s note: With Sundance winner Middle of Nowhere hitting limited release, here is a re-run of our LAFF review, originally published on June 21, 2012.
The concept of loneliness permeates director Ava DuVernay’s sophomore effort, Middle of Nowhere, as we watch Ruby (Emayatzy Corinealdi) struggle to move forward after her husband, Derek (Omari Hardwick), is given a eight year prison sentence. We open on Ruby and Derek during one of their weekly visitations, and the desperation to get through their situation plays all over Ruby’s face while Derek seems more hesitant to look too far into the future. Ruby is hanging on to the hope that with good behavior, Derek’s sentence will be reduced from eight years to five and she makes him repeat this mantra before she leaves.
We learn that Ruby had been on track to go to medical school, but now with Derek locked up, she has decided to put it off in favor of being able to make her weekly visits (and the two hour, each way, bus ride to get there) and be home for his phone calls. It is clear that Derek does not want Ruby to put her life on hold for him, but stubborn and passionate Ruby will hear none of it. She has a plan and believes if they each keep their heads down, they will soon be together again and get their lives back on track. But can things ever go back to the way they were after eight potential years apart?
The film jumps ahead four years and we see Ruby, now dressed in nurses’ scrubs, going about her daily routine of riding the bus, working nights, and coming home to an empty house. Thanks to her decision to stand by Derek, Ruby’s life has become solely focused on him as she no longer seems to be living life, instead simply biding her time between those few and fleeting moments with her husband. The small group of people still populating her life are made up of her sister Rosie (Edwina Findley), her nephew Nickie (Nehemiah Sutton), and her mother Ruth (Lorraine Toussaint) and while Rosie tries to be supportive of Ruby’s decision (in between the time Rosie spends trying to find a man of her own) their mother is unabashedly against it and constantly chastises Ruby for putting Derek’s future before her own.
During their visits now it is apparent that Derek has become hardened and even more distant thanks to his four years behind bars and, while Ruby continues to try and be a source of hope (especially when Derek comes up for early parole), it is obvious that their time apart has created cracks in their relationship, the depths of which have yet to be discovered. After a night out with Rosie and Nickie, Ruby runs into Brian (David Oyelowo), her bus driver, and the sudden spark between them is undeniable. As the possibility of change and having a real, physical, and constant connection in her life starts to present itself, we watch as Ruby begins to consider everything she has turned her back on for Derek. A committed and honest woman, Ruby does not falter in her devotion to her marriage, but when new evidence about how Derek has been spending his time in prison presents itself at his parole hearing, Ruby suddenly finds herself open to all those possibilities and it is mesmerizing to watch her begin to change and move forward into them.
DuVernay is proving to be a master at taking life’s big questions and examining them in a slow and beautiful way that does not necessarily give her audience all the answers, but lets them know that they are not alone in these universal struggles. DuVernay does not shy away from the stark landscapes Ruby ends up in and shows them in all their expansive emptiness to further drive home this idea of loneliness as something that is not only felt by Ruby, but something she literally finds herself surrounded by.
A stunning breakout performance from Corinealdi (Middle of Nowhere marks her first feature film) elevates the film, and the chemistry she shares the screen with everyone else on screen (from Hardwick to Oyelowo to Toussaint) is not only impressive, it is palpable. DuVernay is certainly a talent to watch, but she also fills her films with performers of equal talent making these indie gems ones that may be populated by black actors, but prove to be colorblind as they take on subjects anyone can relate to.
The Upside: A simple story told through captivating and memorable performances guided by skillful direction and beautiful cinematography elevating what could be considered just a complicated love story into a film that stays with you long after the credits roll.
The Downside: While the long shots of Ruby’s true moments alone on the bus or in her house are important to the narrative, they would have benefited from tighter editing to better juxtapose them against the moments she is surrounded by people instead of coming across as overly long pauses in between the action.
On the Side: The indie film Ruby and Brian go to see (Ali: Fear Eats the Soul) is real and available through Netflix.