‘Middle of Nowhere’: The place to be

October 8, 2012

Quiet but compelling, emotionally buttoned-up and naked at the same time, Ava DuVernay’s “Middle of Nowhere,” opening in limited release Friday (10/12/12), is a film about holding still while trying to move forward.

It’s not an easy trick; indeed, it’s impossible. Which is what the film’s central character, Ruby (newcomer Emayatzy Corinealdi, in a breakthrough performance), discovers.

She doesn’t know it at first. She is trying to hold it together – to put a pin in her life while her husband, Derek (Omari Hardwick), is in prison. She believes that she can put the world on hold and wait out her husband’s eight-year stretch – five, with good behavior. She is convinced that, if she’s there every day when he calls and visits him every week (despite the four-hour round trip from L.A. to the prison at Victorville), she can shore up his spirits, help him keep his head down, serve his time and get out to resume their life together.

That patience is admirable. But Ruby’s conviction that she can keep the world at arm’s length is a mistaken one. Still, the film focuses on her heroic struggle to do just that, in this sharply etched and moving story.

Derek is, according to his lawyer, a small fish in a large ring – not drugs but, perhaps, moving stolen goods or guns, since the arrest scene involves agents from Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms; we never learn exactly. But Ruby is convinced that he’s not that guy, that he got caught up in something and has learned his lesson. So she’s willing to wait for him.

A registered nurse who has been admitted to medical school, Ruby puts her plans to be a doctor on hold. She will keep working as a nurse, talk to him daily, visit him weekly – and get him through this so they can get a fresh start when he gets out.

Her life is circumscribed by those circumstances. She works nights (so she can be there when he calls during the day). She rides the bus to and from work (and attracts the attention of a bus driver, Brian, played by David Oyelowo), living in a tight little bubble that includes her mother (Lorraine Toussaint), her sister (Edwina Findley) and her unmarried sister’s young son.

Derek is another story – but which story is it? DuVernay keeps the viewer in the same kind of limbo as she keeps Ruby, whose tether to Derek becomes frayed when he is locked down for being part of prison brawl. He tells her later that he was just defending himself; the prison officials, meanwhile, have charged him with “instigating a melee.”

Which could put a crimp in their plans for an early release. He’s eligible for early parole – or was before the brawl. Can she still engineer his release, given the money demands of her attorney (Sharon Lawrence, in a nice couple of scenes) and the things Ruby has yet to discover about what Derek’s been doing inside?

The big dramatic moments in DuVernay’s film are intentionally small and interior, which is one of the film’s gutsiest moves. The filmmaker isn’t afraid to take her time and to let Ruby spend time with her thoughts and memory. Like Terrence Malick, she understands the power of a wordless interpersonal exchange; unlike Malick, she also knows how to attach it to something of more substance, so that the emotional power accrues over the course of the film.

She also has a gem in Corinealdi, who seemingly is at the center of every scene. She has stillness and strength, with a face across which emotions play, both cautiously and with ferocity. She conveys a lot with a little, fitting perfectly into DuVernay’s scheme of keeping things grounded while maintaining a certain level of ambiguity.

That ambiguity – a sense of things being up in the air, imperfect, with no easy solution in sight – is anathema to most films. Too many movies are afraid to leave the audience with questions about why a character feels a certain way or what will happen next. They’re also afraid to simply be quiet, to show us characters thinking and feeling without actually talking about either.

DuVernay recognizes that life is messy; her movie is not, but the lives and future of her characters are. Which is what makes “Middle of Nowhere” such a find. It’s a touching tale of one woman’s resolve – and how she deals with blows to her carefully constructed plans.

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