Film Review: Five Nights in Maine

An understated exploration of grief and the strained relationship between an African-American widower and his white mother-in-law that is ultimately inscrutable and not especially compelling.
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Interracial marriages are increasingly commonplace and it’s gratifying to see them represented onscreen. We’ve come a long way since Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. But let’s face it, film characters—and the public sensibility they allegedly reflect—are not yet that evolved to make no reference (not one) to the mixed racial makeup of a couple who are central to the story.

That absence is perhaps the most striking misstep in Maris Curran’s debut feature, Five Nights in Maine, a strange little movie about an Atlanta-based African-American widower, Sherwin (David Oyelowo), who having abruptly lost his beloved white wife Fiona (Hani Furstenberg) in a car accident and unable to cope, decides for reasons that are not clear to visit his estranged mother-in-law Lucinda (Dianne Wiest) in rural Maine. A brittle, bitter woman dying from terminal cancer, she had a deeply troubled relationship with her late daughter.

Grieving is not a fun topic and is especially challenging to tackle in a film. Unless the director takes the melodramatic route (and, mercifully, Curran avoids that), how does a filmmaker keep an audience from simply zoning out? Regrettably, Curran and her first-rate cast, including Rosie Perez as Lucinda’s aide Ann, don’t pull it off.

Understatement and a sparse narrative are the name of the game in this one. Slow pacing and low-key (very low-key) naturalistic acting set the tone. Sherwin washes the dishes and he makes egg salad. Lucinda eats the egg salad. She says there is too much mayonnaise in it. Ostensibly something layered is being revealed here. Maybe it is, but like everything else in this picture—interesting moments do occasionally surface—it’s fleeting and its meaning is oblique at best.

The viewer learns nothing of Sherwin or his relationship with his late wife or, for that matter, the quality of his past encounters with his mother-in-law. Lucinda fares a little better. She’s in pain, dependent on others, and knows she’s dying. She also has to live with the fact that Fiona’s last visit with her (shortly before the fatal accident) was particularly turbulent. Even as a teenager, Fiona was changing in ways that were distasteful to Lucinda. Fiona was conventional girl, a cheerleader, who became a “feminist.” Lucinda’s contempt is evident as she utters the dreaded word. She turns to Sherwin and says, “She wanted to be special, so special. You made her special. You could have been anyone.” It’s a powerful snippet and perhaps even hints at racial distaste on her part. Is she saying, you could have been any “black” man, thus implying his racial otherness was the real turn-on? In this instance, a little elaboration—even exposition—might have helped.  

For the most part, the conversations between the two are awkward and punctuated with long silences, the weighty pauses indicating what’s already obvious. Ultimately, Sherwin moves into a local motel on his way back to Atlanta. The next morning he finds Lucinda seated in a chair outside his room. She has spent the whole night there waiting to speak with him, and the scene that follows has dramatic poignancy. Sofian El Fani’s photography of a gray, wintry Maine landscape is an appropriately bleak backdrop. But it’s too little, too late, and still the viewer is called upon to fill in the blanks far more than necessary.  

Sometimes less really is less. In Five Days in Maine, the whole is smaller than the sum of its parts.

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