Middle of Nowhere explores the contours of loneliness and the boundaries of loyalty in a way that is both artful and emotionally revealing.
The journey taken in Middle of Nowhere (*** out of four; rated: R; expanding to select cities) is made all the more credible by a wonderful ensemble cast, led by Emayatzy Corinealdi in the role of Ruby, a loving wife whose husband, Derek (Omari Hardwick), is serving an eight-year prison sentence for an unspecified drug- and gun-related crime.
Once a promising medical student, Ruby drops out of school to work as a night-shift nurse to provide the man she loves with financial support for his legal bills and emotional ballast during his incarceration. She leads a solitary life, marked by long bus rides and struggles with shame, but is determined to remain devoted and optimistic about her husband's chances for early parole. Though the man we see during her prison visits seems sullen and hard, in flashbacks we glimpse the couple in better days and see how she could have fallen in love with him. But there's a dark side to Derek that either Ruby was unaware of or refused to see. Ever the steadfast wife, it becomes impossible for her to cling to her image of a caring husband as troubling revelations surface about his behavior behind bars.
Meanwhile, Brian (David Oyelowo), a warm-hearted bus driver, takes an interest in Ruby. Will Ruby consider the affections of an available and good man, or hold on to her illusions about her husband?
The film delves not only into romantic relationships but also those between parents and adult children. Ruby's opinionated mother, Ruth (Lorraine Toussaint), grows impatient with her bright daughter's insistence on clinging to the sinking ship that is her marriage. Understandably, she disapproves of Derek, but little of her wisdom born of life experience seems to get through to Ruby. She occasionally turns to her sister Rosie (Edwina Findley), a single mom, also struggling with their mom's disapproval. But mostly Ruby bears her emotional burdens alone.
Corinealdi is wonderful in this breakout role, imbuing Ruby with dignity and palpable sadness. Oyelowo proves his versatility on the heels of a very different role as an arrogant journalist in The Paper Boy. Hardwick and Toussaint are also superb.
Because so much of the film is about Ruby's ruminations and memories, the pace sometimes grows sluggish, and a few plot threads don't entirely work. Derek's buddy shows up to threaten Ruby over her budding friendship with Brian as if he's spying on her constantly. A few moments teeter on melodrama. But the performances are so strong that those missteps don't deter from the film's overall dramatic potency. The prison meetings between Ruby and Derek feel real and unscripted, as do the exchanges with her sister and mother. The growing affection between Brian and Ruby proceeds in believable fits and starts.
Writer/director Ava DuVernay, who won the best-director award at this year's Sundance Film Festival, not only draws powerfully authentic performances from the cast, but intensifies the story's emotional punch with stirring cinematic flourishes that artfully convey Ruby's isolation. Often it seems the story is told more through visuals than dialogue.
Nothing is easily resolved in this complex drama, which makes it all the more honestly moving. More than anything, this is a film about a woman on a journey of self-discovery, finding her way gingerly.