Middle of Nowhere: Sundance Film Review

Strong performances and a restrained script sell drama about a couple separated by prison walls.

Strong performances and a restrained script sell drama about a couple separated by prison walls.

PARK CITY — A deceptively slight film that strikes the right balance between realist family drama and earnestness, Middle of Nowhere observes a marriage put on hold and suggests its star might be wise to move on. Solidly crafted by budding writer-director Ava DuVernay, it should find a warm reception at fests and in a niche theatrical run.

Emayatzy Corinealdi plays Ruby, who trades dreams for obligations in the film's first scene: Meeting with husband Derek (Omari Hardwick) during his first weeks in prison, she reveals she's dropping out of med school so she can make the four-hour round trip every visiting day and be home when he's allowed to call during the week. Working nights as a nurse and helping her sister raise a young boy, Ruby puts all her excess energy into keeping Derek's spirits up and planning for early parole.

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DuVernay quickly but convincingly paints the life of an inmate's wife: the friends made on that long weekly bus ride, the social opportunities turned down, the hard-won paychecks that go straight to lawyers. By refusing (until late in the film) to tell us why Derek's in jail, she universalizes the experience: Is this one of the countless black families broken by selectively enforced laws? Even if that's the case, Ruby's not in the market for pity.

Corinealdi projects enough intelligence and backbone to make us believe a character who might've been bothersomely perfect in another actress' hands. When Ruby's marital worldview is shaken midway through the film, we relish seeing her spread her wings, suddenly accepting the attention of a friendly bus driver (David Oyelowo). DuVernay resists melodrama in this triangle, saving more heated scenes to explore the deliberately nebulous, longstanding grudges between Ruby, her sister, and her mother.

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Performances are strong across the board here, and the picture's solid, understated visuals ground the story further. The pace feels leaden on occasion, but that's hardly inappropriate for a film about lives interrupted by a five- to eight-year prison sentence.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival, U.S. Dramatic Competition
Production Companies: Kandoo Films, Forward Movement
Cast: Emayatzy Corinealdi, David Oyelowo, Omari Hardwick, Lorraine Toussaint, Edwina Findley, Sharon Lawrence, Dondre Whitfield, Troy Curvey III, Maya Gilbert
Director-Screenwriter: Ava DuVernay
Producers: Howard Barish, Ava DuVernay, Paul Garnes
Director of photography: Bradford Young
Music: Kathryn Bostic
Costume designer: Stacy Beverly
Editor: Spencer Averick
Sales: Ben Weiss, Paradigm
No rating, 100 minutes