Emayatzy Corinealdi and David Oyelowo in Ava DuVernay’s Middle of Nowhere

The title of Ava DuVernay’s lovely and moving Middle of Nowhere speaks to the main character Ruby, a woman caught between worlds.  Once a happily married med student making her way out of a rough upbringing in South Central Los Angeles, Ruby’s goals and dreams are cut short when her husband Derek is sentenced to prison for 8 years. Suddenly, life as she dreamt it could be is on hold and she channels all of her energies toward getting Derek out as soon as possible. Separated by prison walls however, the two find themselves changing in different directions. When Ruby meets the handsome, charming and definitely interested Brian on the outside, her life is thrown into a whole new kind of turmoil.

A well-deserved winner of the Best Director award at 2012 Sundance, DuVernay brings a confidence of vision to Middle of Nowhere that is a little surprising for someone making only their second narrative feature. The result is an unexpectedly universal story that manages to be culturally specific without being culturally exclusive. Yes, it is specifically and proudly the story of an African-American woman and I don’t want to minimize that, but DuVernay has given so much life and complexity to each one of her characters that they register as human beings rather than as types or statistics. They are warm, they are funny, they are sexy and they are flawed. Above all, they are people.

Since each character is fully formed with their own internal lives and needs, Middle of Nowhere is also nicely unpredictable. Characters aren’t shaded to assist the moving forward of a story. It’s almost as though DuVernay first created her characters and then let them show her the way through the narrative. Nothing is pre-ordained and I literally had no idea what choices Ruby was going to make through to the end of the film. To pull that off and, above all, to leave the audience feeling that Ruby’s choices are honest and real is something truly special ad marks DuVernay as a real talent.

Taking the words on a page and transforming them are a set of gifted actors who give finely shaded performances all around. Emayatzy Corinealdi is a face I had not seen before, but I suspect we’ll see much more of her. As Ruby, she’s in every scene and she has to be careful never to come across as a victim. Her commitment to her imprisoned husband has to be credible and sympathetic, but so does her conflict when she meets Brian. Corinealdi makes it work and you’re with Ruby every step of the way even when you might not agree with her choices.

Also terrific is Lorraine Toussaint as Ruth, Ruby’s not-so-supportive mother. Ruth wants the best for her daughter, but she’s also a realist and doesn’t want to see Ruby throw it all away. Ruth could be a shrew and it seems at first that’s how she’s going to play out, but she has a richness and a depth all her own. That Ruth is so believable and recognizable is a testament not only to DuVernay’s fine writing, but also Toussaint’s sensitive performance.

David Oyelowo meanwhile, recently seen in a juicy supporting part in Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy and with roles on the near horizon in the high profile Lincoln and Jack Reacher films, has to play Brian as the seemingly perfect man. Doing that charmingly and being powerful enough to cause Ruby to take her eye off the ball while also coming across as a real human being is not an easy task, but Oyelowo fills Brian with life.

On the other side of Oyelowo’s Brian is Omari Hardwick as Derek. He’s given limited screen time and limited settings to come across as a man for whom Ruby would sacrifice everything even as he becomes increasingly distant. It helps that, like Oyelowo, Hardwick is obnoxiously handsome, but his appeal goes deeper than that. When he hopelessly tells Ruby early in the film that he doesn’t want to see her sacrificing her life for him, you believe him, but you also sense the frustration and impotence he feels at his situation.

All of the sharp writing and nuanced performances could’ve been for nothing if Middle of Nowhere didn’t look and sound so good; much better in fact than its modest budget might lead you to expect. DuVernay and her cinematographer Bradford Young have captured a recognizable, ground-level vision of an L.A. that is far removed from the tourist hot spots outsiders recognize and they’ve infused it with kind of a dreamy, hazy glow. It has the softness and sensuality of a lovely memory, a beautiful and distinctly feminine contrast to some of the story’s harder edges.

Middle of Nowhere is the kind of small, personal film that could easily be marginalized. If you don’t recognize yourself on the poster or in the trailer, it’s tempting to put the film in its box and move on to something else, but that would be a mistake. This is a compelling, vibrant, moving story and it is beautifully told. Isn’t that what we all hope for from any movie?

[Middle of Nowhere was also the subject of the most recent Oscar Podcast I did with Sasha Stone and Ryan Adams. If anything, they were even more enthusiastic about the film than I am. Give it a listen.]

4 Responses to “Middle of Nowhere (2012)”

  1. Were you excited about this one? Are you in the mood to talk about it? Are you implying some awards may be lurking down the line?

    The answers to all three questions are the same, and this elaborate, beautifully-written piece is a personal extension of the glowing podcast that you, Ryan Adams and Sasha Stone released a few days ago. While your review clearly implies you were close to squeezing out that extra half-star that might place this in the ‘best movies of the year’ category, you also seem to hint that this film will resonate more strongly down the line. I can’t say how excited I am that this and ARGO are opening this coming weekend, making my itinerary form itself. And if your own opinion was less enthusiastic than the ones of your Awards Daily colleagues, I’d say only marginally. What you say here makes up for that in spades.

  2. If anything, I think Sasha and Ryan are more high on this one than I am, though obviously I found a great deal to admire and I think DuVernay is a real talent that we should be hearing more from going forward.

    Ryan pointed out in the podcast how it kind of had a European feeling and that’s true, I think because European films are much more interested in characters over story. This one has both, but its strengths lie in the characters.

  3. Very well written review. Having seen I Will Follow this summer, I’m excited to see this as well. Duvernay really is one of the most promising new talents we have and I hope she’s able to get a wider audience.

  4. I haven’t seen I Will Follow yet, but it’s streaming on Netflix and I aim to catch up to it directly. It looks like Middle of Nowhere is getting pretty solid reviews all around and I hope that translates into a lot more attention and work for Duvernay, but also her cast.

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