'Five Nights in Maine': TIFF Review

Intriguing parts, underwhelming whole.

David Oyelowo stars as a widower and Dianne Wiest as his hostile, cancer-stricken mother-in-law in Maris Curran's drama.

It’s rare to come across a movie about grief and grieving that doesn’t feel manipulative or routine (one understands why Alejandro Inarritu took an axe to his narrative in 2003’s 21 Grams, rearranging the splintered pieces in non-chronological order). To its credit, Five Nights in Maine, the feature-length debut from writer-director Maris Curran, isn’t really either of those things. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good.

Starring David Oyelowo as an African-American widower and Dianne Wiest as his cancer-stricken mother-in-law, this lugubrious indie drama is affecting in parts but never gels into a satisfying whole. Part of the problem, ironically, is also what makes the film unusual: its exceedingly light touch in dealing with race.

Centering on the muted, uneasy interactions between Sherwin (Oyelowo) and Lucinda (Wiest) during his brief visit to her rural New England house, Five Nights in Maine hinges on our recognition of the elephant in the room: that Lucinda has never been comfortable with her daughter, Fiona (Hani Furstenberg), marrying a black man. While it’s admirable that the movie doesn’t want to bludgeon us with message and meaning (a la Paul HaggisCrash), two people tiptoeing around what’s really bothering them does not always make for gripping viewing. Curran tries to turn the main story (i.e. racism) into the underlying subtext, but she’s not yet a sophisticated enough stylist or director of actors to pull it off.  

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The film opens with a vision of marital bliss: Sherwin and Fiona in bed, shot in intimate close-up as they canoodle. Obviously something is about to go terribly wrong, and Curran lays the foreshadowing on thick with David Boulter’s downbeat score and a voicemail in which a solemn-sounding Fiona tells Sherwin, "I love you" (never a good sign 10 minutes in).

Soon enough, Sherwin is fielding a late-night phone call from the police: Fiona has been killed in a traffic accident. Curran keeps her camera tight on Oyelowo’s face as he absorbs the news, and his stunned reaction, eyes darting about in child-like panic, makes for one of the film’s most vivid moments.

After some familiar beats — glimpses of a depressed Sherwin showering, smoking, drinking, sleeping and lounging around (classic movie mourning) — our protagonist, stirred from his inertia by his sister (Teyonah Parris), drives to Maine to meet the ailing Lucinda. The remainder of the film traces their fraught relationship, from awkward meals in which their dislike for one another is communicated via withering looks and loaded silences to a final showdown that sees the ill will between them boiling over.

Sherwin also casually bonds with Lucinda’s nurse, Ann (an excellent, restrained Rosie Perez), takes a dip in a nearby lake, goes for a stroll in the woods and gazes at a ladybug who lands on his finger. In other words, not much happens in Five Nights in Maine — or, rather, it’s all happening under the surface, but Curran hasn’t found a way to tap into Sherwin’s ravaged inner life. As intriguing as individual scenes are, they fail to generate more than momentary tension or build to anything that feels substantial.

The film’s thinness can be, at least in part, blamed on its oblique handling of the theme of racial resentment. In addition to dealing with Lucinda’s polite seething, Sherwin is on the receiving end of a distrustful double take from a white local at a store, as well as a hunter’s gunshots (which may or may not have been aimed at a deer). You get what Curran’s trying to do — identify a less visible, more insidious 21st century racism, one expressed through tones, glances and anonymous gestures rather than bold statements. But in lieu of explicit dialogue there’s little in her filmmaking — the actual images she creates — that conveys Sherwin’s experience of prejudice and alienation. Five Nights in Maine tries to be subtle in its approach to the ever-tricky subject of race; it ends up feeling evasive, an impression reinforced by the needlessly shaky camera and reluctance to hold a shot for more than several seconds.

Oyelowo is convincing, despite a slightly forced American accent and an actory tendency to telegraph his character’s feelings. Perhaps he’s overcompensating for what, on the page, isn’t there; Sherwin is numbed by his loss, but he also seems, frankly, like a bit of a bore.

Lucinda is a more vivid figure, and Wiest gives a highly mannered performance, her trademark wispy voice and delicate diction making every line land like a passive-aggressive torpedo. The character doesn’t make much sense — it’s not entirely clear whether she’s loopy on pain pills or just off her rocker — but Wiest never sugarcoats or shies away from her cold fury.  

Five Nights in Maine doesn’t offer tidy resolutions or catharsis; that’s refreshing. Of course, avoiding pitfalls isn’t quite the same thing as doing things well — a statement that could be applied to the film as a whole.

Production companies: Loveless, Yoruba Saxon Productions
Writer-director: Maris Curran
Cast: David Oyelowo, Dianne Wiest, Rosie Perez, Teyonah Parris, Hani Furstenberg, Bill Raymond

Producers: Maris Curran, Carly Hugo, David Oyelowo, Matt Parker, Drew P. Houpt
Executive producers: Steven Ballerini, Walker Deibel, Glenn Rigberg, Michael Y. Chow, Michael K. Shen
Director of photography: Sofian El Fani
Production designer: Sara K White
Costume designer: Maili Lafayette
Editor: Ron Dulin
Composer: David Boulter
Casting: Lois Drabkin
84 minutes