MIDDLE OF NOWHERE, which won the Sundance US Dramatic Directing award for Ava DuVernay last night, is in no rush.  The films moves with deliberation as it establishes its leading character and her difficult situation:  Ruby (Emayatzy E. Corinealdi) isn’t a single mom, but she might as well be, with husband Derek (Omari Hardwick) doing a 8-year stretch in prison.  Ruby sacrificed her own dreams of being a doctor so that she could raise their son and make the weekly trek to visit Derek in jail; she struggles with her nursing career, her difficult relationships with her disappointed mother (Lorraine Toussaint) and sister (Edwina Findley), and her own loneliness.

The main body of the story takes place 4 years into Derek’s sentence, when he has his first chance to be released on parole for good behavior.  Ruby’s life becomes more complicated when, even as she’s in the midst of raising the funds for her husband’s appeal, she meets a charming bus driver (David Oyelowo), and then learns increasingly shocking facts about her husband’s time in prison.
The melodramatic bones of this story could have resulted in a Lifetime movie (although it’s not exactly Lifetime’s demo), but the restraint and precision of DuVernay’s script bring it to a different level.  Middle of Nowhere is also aided immeasurably by Corinealdi’s powerful performance as Ruby–she’s a woman constantly aware that her every action has consequences for everyone in her life, and her attempts to crawl out from under that weight are quietly moving.  Hardwick and Oyelowo are also excellent as the men who orbit her life, although Toussaint, despite a bravura dinner table monologue, is hindered by DuVernay’s decision to keep Ruby’s family life somewhat vague.  Sharon Lawrence, as Derek’s attorney, has a small but very nimbly written role that she plays to the hilt.
DuVernay makes smart use of what must have been limited production resources, and the cinematography by Bradford Young (who also shot Pariah) belies the film’s low budget with handsome visuals that mercifully mostly eschew the urban-movie cliche of shaky hand-held camerawork.
Middle of Nowhere sometimes bears the burden of its own cinematic dignity, and it can feel stolid, especially in the mid-section (a little re-editing before theatrical release might help).  But Corinealdi is never less than compelling, and Nowhere feels like it’s taken Ruby–and the audience–on a genuine journey by the time it ends.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."