Steeped in soulful contemporary music and an adept use of montage, director Ava DuVernay’s “Middle of Nowhere” beautifully captures the plight of its conflicted lead character. However, strengths in art direction cannot distract from the film’s weak and limited plot. Though well-acted, the characters’ scenes frequently seem unrealistic and childish. Full of profound silences and moments of wistful eye contact, “Nowhere” certainly goes about setting a mood, but in doing so only raises expectations that remain unmet. Introducing a series of grand conflicts, “Nowhere” focuses more on maintaining a muted color scheme and art-house-vibe than actually working toward resolutions.
“Middle of Nowhere” examines the marriage of Ruby (Emayatzy Corinealdi) and Derek (Omari Hardwick), a young couple forcibly separated by Derek’s eight-year prison sentence. Acted by an entirely African-American cast — except for the small role of Derek’s lawyer — “Nowhere” plunges into a unique realm of American cinema. The story follows Ruby, who drops out of medical school because of her devotion to her incarcerated spouse and restructures her forseeable future around phone calls and visitation hours. We are led to believe that this is a result of true love, as Ruby counts down the minutes until Derek’s parole hearing, reflecting upon the comforting moments of simpler times when they were together. Unfortunately, what happens in prison does not always stay there, and certain truths come to the forefront that force Ruby to see her husband beyond love’s rose-tinted lenses. Everything is thrown into limbo as Ruby begins to question her choices and the strength of her marriage.
Regardless of the film’s weaknesses, its cast excels. David Oyelowo, for instance, takes on the supporting role of the even-keeled bus driver, Brian, with controlled subtlety and instant charisma. Hardwick is so good as Derek that it is a pity he isn’t onscreen more.
Derek’s story is left largely untold, and questions of his arrest, sentence, and marriage linger unpleasantly even after the credits have rolled. “Nowhere” possesses all the components of potential success, but doesn’t quite know how to put them to use, leaving the bland taste of squandered potential.
In a world where Tyler Perry films often represent the only African-American cinema coming out of Hollywood, “Middle of Nowhere” is truly a trailblazer. Director Ava DuVernay made history at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival as the first African-American woman to receive the award for Best Director. “Nowhere” is nothing short of well-made; the problem lies in its inability to look past its stylistic elements. While visually stimulating, the audience needs more to hold on to and more to invest in.
A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, Oct. 9 print edition. Isabel Jones is a contributing writer. Email her at [email protected]