Rather the focus is on the wife of an inmate. She too dwells in a prison, only one without actual bars. Instead what frames her existence, what boxes her in, is the overwhelming sense of loss and shame and the fact of a radically altered life.
If she loves her man and wants to maintain the marriage, during incarceration and afterwards, her whole life becomes that of a place-holder.
She must maintain a phantom household where one person is missing. She must keep a regular job rather than go to school for the future. She must make regular treks to a prison out of town to maintain the connection, the love.
Above all this, she must buy into a fiction. That fiction can include all sorts of things from a blindness to what got her husband into stir in the first place to what goes on inside prison walls.
In recent years, American films about people of color or ethnic minorities have come of age. No longer must their stories turn on race, anger, protests or issues of assimilation.
This among other reasons is no doubt why the film’s writer-director, Ava DuVernay, won the Best Director Award at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.
The movie contains no melodrama. Rather it measures the lives of its African-American characters in scenes where everyone tries to suppress emotional intensity. Yet these emotions bubble to the surface in ways that don’t seem acted, in scenes that don’t seem scripted.
A young actress named Emayatzy Corinealdi plays Ruby, the prisoner’s wife. She lives somewhere in south L.A. and she rides buses.
They take her to work as an RN and back. They take her to Victorville where the prison is.
She pulled out of med school early to earn money and maintain the marriage. She readjusted her life to the chagrin of her interfering mother (Lorraine Toussaint) and careless sister (Edwina Findley), already with a young son and living near the poverty line.
One bus also delivers a possible alternate life. Its driver, Brian (British actor David Oyelowo), appreciates her quiet strength and beauty. He wants her.
And when the fiction she creates around her husband and marriage dissolves one unexpected day, she is tempted to reconsider her options.
DuVernay gives her character’s environment — her apartment and the homes of her sis and mom, the bus stops and buses themselves, the hospital rooms and the prison’s family meeting room just before the bars — a constricted feeling. Her prison is larger than her husband’s but it confines.
She meets her bus driver, really encountering him rather than nodding on a bus, in the movie’s first open space — at the beach following a fireworks show.
These turn out to be “indie, boring movies.” The kind I have to read? he asks. Yes, there are subtitles.
This is a refreshing way to open up a character and her situation. You never took Ruby for a foreign-film fan. Just goes to show.
Until she meets this new man, Corinealdi lets Ruby’s face become a mask. It seldom cracks. She moves through her life like a zombie. She assesses situations and reacts but her mind is nearly always elsewhere.
Only when she deals with her sister or her nephew does the mask slip. She cares too much about them and wishes she had the means to help.
Oyelowo goes the opposite direction: His face is easily read. His character is open with his feelings and a sharp contrast to everyone else in Ruby’s life. He’s looking for change while she’s resistant to any.
The husband is played by Omari Hardwick. He has the difficult assignment of suggesting not only the past life and love the couple once shared but his character’s dark side and his real interest in seeing his wife get on with her life even if that means at his expense.
The husband is always quiet but you sense a bottled-in fury. He never gives in to this, at least not on camera; prison has taught him that much. But it simmers just beneath the surface.
There are other fine scenes involving an attorney played by Sharon Lawrence and the mom and sister. But the movie mostly sticks with its unusual love triangle. It’s one where the triangle is in pieces with each side floating rather than connecting.
Again shunning melodrama, the film lacks bad guys. Rather the movie gives a glimpses into these private lives, never pushing for histrionics. The direction is meticulous and well calibrated. Yes, “Middle of Nowhere” most definitely did earn its Sundance honors.
Opens: October 12, 2012 (African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement)
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
R rating, 101 minutes