To say that "Middle of Nowhere," winner of Sundance's coveted directing award for writer-director Ava DuVernay, sheds long-overdue light on infrequently explored aspects of African American life is true as far as it goes, but it doesn't go far enough.
For the truth is that it is uncommon to see serious adult dramas this moving and accomplished, so attuned to real people and their complex, recognizable emotions, no matter the racial makeup of the characters involved.
So though it echoes the films of Charles Burnett, the plays of August Wilson and "A Raisin in the Sun," at its heart "Middle of Nowhere" is old-school, character-driven narrative at its most quietly effective.
This realistic story of what happens to a wife and a marriage when a husband is sent to prison takes its subject too seriously to oversell it. DuVernay's deeply involving script understands that ordinary life can be a hard, difficult business from which no one emerges untroubled or unscathed.
Key to making "Middle of Nowhere" so effective is how DuVernay makes her film a showcase for strong work by a skilled ensemble (Aisha Coley did the casting), with special mention inevitably going to Emayatzy Corinealdi playing Ruby, the wife in question.
DuVernay's story opens with Ruby on an early morning bus headed from Los Angeles to what feels literally like the middle of nowhere, the federal prison in Victorville, where her husband, Derek (Omari Hardwick), is incarcerated.
It takes quite a while to find out why Derek is inside, because the nature of his crime is not what's important here. Rather the focus is on the couple's relationship and, gradually, on a different kind of journey that Ruby is making, the classic one of self-actualization, of finding yourself when you feel emotionally in the middle of nowhere, a journey that allows for no shortcuts or easy answers.
From the beginning, it's clear that the bond between Ruby and Derek is not to be simply summarized. There is real love here but also frustration born not only of personalities but also of the different ways men and women perceive what they should and should not be doing in relationships.
Derek is just starting an eight-year sentence, but Ruby wants to focus on the five years it could be cut to with good behavior. A registered nurse enrolled in medical school, she is determined to drop out to devote more time to her husband and his case, a level of self-sacrifice that Derek is uncomfortable accepting.
"Don't do this, don't be a martyr," he tells her in one of the film's many taut exchanges. "You're on your way to something, don't stop," to which Ruby replies, emphasis on the first word, "We were on our way."
With that, "Middle of Nowhere" quickly cuts to four years later, and one look at Ruby shows us that those years have taken a toll on her. One of Corinealdi's assets as an actress is a compassionate, yearning face that subtly registers a whole range of emotions.
The only people Ruby has let into her life during Derek's absence are her sister Rosie (Edwina Findley) — a single parent who is tireless in pursuit of enjoyment for herself and Ruby — and their mother, the unnerving Ruth.
Persuasively played by Lorraine Toussaint, Ruth takes your breath away. Acerbic, difficult and always on everyone's case, Ruth is a pitiless teller of truths who feels betrayed when her bitter honesty causes her children to push her away. A more compelling supporting part will not be seen this year.
With all this as backdrop, two things happen that upend Ruby's world. The possibility arises that Derek may qualify for early parole and, simultaneously, another man tries to find footing in her life.
That would be Brian, delicately played by David Oyelowo in a role very different from his work in "The Paperboy." The sweet-natured Brian is one of the bus drivers on the route Ruby takes home from her hospital work, and when he bumps into her in a more social situation, the attraction he feels toward her is palpable.
Though "Middle of Nowhere" is very much a character piece, it benefits from some intricate plotting, and going where you think it will go is not on this film's mind. When you question everything about yourself, Ruby has to ask, what do you have to hold onto? We don't often have films that ask questions like these or ones that answer them as effectively.
'Middle of Nowhere'
MPAA rating: R, for some language
Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes
Playing: At Sundance Sunset Cinema, West Hollywood; Rave 18, Los Angeles