With its innocuous title, Middle of Nowhere may seem like yet another passably shot Sundance indie you can skip because you’ve seen the soft beats it hits a thousand times before. Don’t be a jackass—resist such urges. Losing itself inside the labyrinthine emotions of long-distance relationships, relationships between female family members, and the prison industrial complex, Middle of Nowhere displays a rare savvy for such explorations, visually and narratively.
The film is also notable for tearing down the long-standing division between “respectable” and “bad” in African American culture (a division pointedly made by Chris Rock in his 1996 HBO special Bring the Pain, speaking about self-representation: “I love Black people, but I hate niggas”). Hardworking nurse Ruby (fantastic newcomer Emayatzy Corinealdi) has unconsciously followed her husband Derek (Omari Hardwick) into prison. As he serves his eight-year sentence (which Ruby categorically believes will only be five, due to good behavior), she isolates herself by picking up as many shifts as possible and making the weekly four-hour journey to visit him in prison. She sees her sister, nephew, and mother, but only rarely—there are too many hours that must be spent working on his appeals and remembering their life together. Even Derek believes she’s being too zealous, but Ruby’s commitment to being “the good wife” and believing his troubles with the law were only due to being a victim of circumstance are unshakeable. However, all penance must end: she is pulled out of her self-flagellation by Brian (David Oyelowo), the bus driver who shuttles her back and forth from work.
Though her guilt around pursuing things with Brian is the central conflict, the others that occur during the film—her mother lamenting the family’s repeated failure to meaningfully connect, between Ruby and Derek’s lawyer after he gets into a prison brawl—are well-managed bursts of tension that are painfully lifelike but do not overwhelm or distract. Despite putting everyone else in front of her, this is all about Ruby: the brilliant and economical pieces of mind she does give, and the space when things she leaves unsaid. Sumptuously shot, the latter moments are perhaps most powerful, achieving an Apichatpong-like quietude in a story that tackles so many big issues and emotions. Though writer-director Ava DuVernay avoids any and all cliché right up until the closing titles, I have no qualms ending this review with one: I wholeheartedly look forward to her next project.