Love can lead us where we least expect.
When a filmmaker seems to come out of nowhere to deliver something tremendous, I like to seek out their earlier works; it’s always interesting to see if there is something in their past that might suggest signs of a successful future (the present). The “something tremendous” in this case is 2014’s Selma, and its creator is writer/director Ava DuVernay. The earlier work is the new-to-DVD film Middle of Nowhere.
Ruby (Emayatzy Corinealdi, Wednesday Again) is a medical student looking to make a better life for herself and her husband, Derek (Omari Hardwick, The A-Team). But when Derek is arrested and sentenced to 8 years in a prison that’s a four-hour round trip commute, Ruby decides to drop out of med school so she can be available to speak to her husband each weekday and make the long bus trip each weekend to see him. For her, keeping their marriage strong under such challenging circumstances trumps any education or job opportunity.
Fast-forward four years and Derek is eligible for early parole, but the path to being free and reunited is neither smooth nor straight. When a stunning revelation is made public at Derek’s parole hearing, and when a tired and lonely Ruby has a chance meeting with hard-working bus driver Brian (David Oyelowo, Selma), that same path finds itself at a crossroads. Ruby must decide which path to take.
Middle of Nowhere is a film that, in lesser hands, would have found a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it home on basic cable, popping up now again in the overnight block. Instead, in the quite capable writing/directing hands of Ava DuVernay, the film became a critical darling, earning praise and prizes from Sundance to the Spirits. All of it is well-earned, too. DuVernay deftly guides Middle of Nowhere away from cable movie melodrama and presents a serious reflection on love, commitment, sacrifice, and the price of imprisonment.
The “love, commitment, sacrifice” portion of the film is not as obvious as the summary makes it sound. In addition to her relationships with Derek and Brian, Ruby is involved in the lives of…check that. The lives of Ruby; her mother, Ruth (Lorraine Toussaint, Dangerous Minds); and her single-mom sister, Rosie (Edwina Findley Dickerson, Insidious: Chapter 2) are deeply intertwined, including sharing everything from support to criticism and from living space to the responsibilities of caring for Rosie’s young son. Their scenes together–in pairs or as a family–are never unnatural. This trio of actresses has a chemistry that is more organic than some real-life mothers and daughters enjoy.
But it’s “the price of imprisonment” that is key to the greater good of the film because it isn’t only Derek who finds himself stripped of freedom. Ruby is a prisoner, too, and perhaps a more one than her husband because she chooses her sentence. This isn’t just about standing by her man, either; she elects to put her entire life on hold for up to eight years (ever confident it will only be five with good behavior), making herself a prisoner of her husband’s circumstance and doing the hard labor of waiting by the phone every day and making round trips on the bus every weekend. She also volunteers for the most solitary of confinements by living her life as a companionless bride.
She’s also a prisoner of her own reputation. Her individual rep isn’t bad, but she forever wears the Scarlet Letter of a woman whose husband is a convicted felon. She does her time well, but when she meets Brian, she meets the chance to escape.
The whole construct of Ruby’s life and life choices has a depth to it that comes as a warm and welcome surprise, and Corinealdi wears well onscreen that life and those life choices. The actress maintains a level of optimism and perseverance in Ruby, while at the same time offers against it this marvelous sense of self-doubt and hidden fatigue. The rest of the cast is excellent as well, particularly Oyelowo as Brian, whose gentle handling of Ruby is borne of respect, not timidity. Even before he knows her full story, he treats her in a way she hasn’t been treated since her husband went to jail–and really, before that too. Brian is a confident man, not a player, and Ruby is better for it.
These relationships are not basic cable relationships because the cast is not a basic cable cast and DuVernay is not…well, you get the point. As for her direction, there’s an amazing tenderness to her visual touch that resonates throughout the film. There are moments that are devastating in their emotional weight, scenes without dialogue that find ways to speak volumes. This doesn’t just happen by accident; DuVernay has game, and just when you think she has shown you everything, she inserts riveting flashback scenes that grab you by your lapels in both theme and vision. She’s also got a great visual collaborator in cinematographer Bradford Young (A Most Violent Year). His work in this film, particularly the bluish hues of the prison visitation room, is something to see.
There is some peripheral drama involving Derek’s lawyer (Sharon Lawrence, TV’s NYPD Blue) that addresses how Ruby and Derek can afford the lawyer’s retainer. While the sentiment behind the scene might be genuine, and while I’m sure people with loved ones in jail face this circumstance routinely, the confrontation between the attorney and Ruby is forced, with melodrama that belies the genuine, grounded, realistic drama found in the rest of the film.
The 2.35:1 anamorphic video presentation on the Middle of Nowhere DVD is very good. There is edge softness and some graininess in the darkest scenes, but the rest of the film looks terrific (again with a tip of the hat to cinematographer Young). The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track is perfectly fine. It faces no great challenge from conflicting audio sources as the film is mostly dialogue. That dialogue, though, is clear.
In addition to a digital copy of the film, the Middle of Nowhere DVD features an audio commentary with writer/director DuVernay and her star, Corinealdi.
I understand why Selma is getting all the attention (good or bad). But if you want something that is its almost artistically equivalent, which was written and directed by, stars, and was photographed by many of the same people, do yourself a favor and add the Middle of Nowhere DVD to your collection. Somewhere down the road, as long as Hollywood is willing to let DuVernay do her thing, this will be seen as a key early work in her career.