Film Review: Middle of NowherePoignant drama explores the world of dilemmas of a Los Angeles woman who cares for her imprisoned husband while struggling to keep her true self afloat. Director Ava DuVerney is a fresh female voice, with a sharp point of view.
The key to understanding Ruby, the uniquely complex female character at the heart of writer-director Ava DuVernay’s gently poignant yet clear-eyed film Middle of Nowhere, lies in a scene where she talks about her taste in film. “I prefer indie ones, foreign ones,” says Ruby, challenging Brian (The Paperboy’s David Oyelowo), the kind bus driver who woos her. This scene, and the movie date that follows soon after (when they travel to “the West Side,” outside of their part of Los Angeles), signifies an oasis for Ruby, where she can revive an older version of herself, before she voluntarily left medical school to make ends meet while caring for her husband sentenced to eight years in prison. Five, with good time.
Middle of Nowhere begins with grippingly potent dialogue between a compassionate, reassuring Ruby and her husband Derek (Omari Hardwick) in the prison’s visitation area, near what looks to be the start of Derek’s sentence. Ruby reveals her decision to leave school and swears her promises to a protesting Derek, perhaps not realizing that would also serve as the start of her own sentence to a gray area between worlds, as lucidly conveyed by the film’s title. The soft yet resolute facial features of the brilliantly cast Emayatzy Corinealdi (truly one of the year’s best casting choices) also hint towards—or rather, support—a similar duality and dilemma in Ruby. On one hand, she embodies the innate female instinct of self-sacrifice; on the other, she longs for the life she once led as an ambitious woman with an insatiable appetite for life, when she used to be “full of ideas,” as voiced by her disapproving mother Ruth (Lorraine Toussaint in a powerful performance).
By finally giving in to Brian, Ruby not only protests Derek’s wrongdoing which surfaces shortly before his five-year parole hearing, but also rekindles an inner flame that links her to her once-upon-a-time self. Whether or not she ends up with Brian is not the point; in the end, Ruby must exist only for Ruby. And Ava DuVernay, the deserving winner of the Best Director award at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, is certainly not afraid to remind us of that, despite the ought-to-be-archaic societal expectations of and challenges set for contemporary women.
Made on a shoestring budget, Middle of Nowhere doesn’t show distracting signs of its limited resources. On the contrary, the film looks unusually beautiful, and that’s not only thanks to the easy-on-the-eyes cast. Together with her cinematographer Bradford Young, DuVernay’s admirably decisive vision yields a soft, quiet visual palette and furthers Ruby’s dream-like state, walking in the streets of L.A. or sharing intimacy with Brian, while the R&B/soul-type music tracks offer a subtle sense of relief.
One could mistakenly expect clichés here or anticipate louder statements about social injustice. But DuVernay avoids the easy way out, maintains the integrity of her veracious, well-founded story, and keeps her focus on Ruby, an infinitely relatable woman with believable dilemmas, without sidestepping the larger issues surrounding her. An authentic female voice is certainly hard to come by in this industry; and to know that there is a place for fresh voices like DuVerney’s at Sundance reinstates one’s at times diminishing faith in independent film and inspires other big, utopian thoughts, such as: What if the mainstream awards season ends up being as open-minded and welcoming towards the writer-director of this deceptively small film? Dare to dream.