Yet another delightful surprise has dropped in the lap of Oscar this year in Ava DuVernay’s Middle of Nowhere. You’ve probably never seen a film like this, I know I never have. DuVernay has crafted vibrant, original, flawed and interesting female characters who are trying to find their own way in life out from underneath the shadow of the men they’ve depended on. This is a story about a slow moving journey out of a trap. The main character Ruby (Emayatzy Corinealdi) is torn between two competing forces in her life. It isn’t a choice to pick between two men, though that’s what it seems like in the trailer. It is actually deeper than that — it’s about the choice between looking out for herself and her own future or continuing to try to make a troubled marriage work. It’s an interesting question because there isn’t an easy answer — it is a struggle, a conflict. Ruby has choices in life but none of them are easy ones.
The magic in DuVernay’s writing and filmmaking is that it feels like you’re driving down a familiar road but every turn, every stop sign leads to something unexpected. You think Ruby’s mom is going to be the typical black inner-city grandmother — one extreme or another — either the soul-food cooking earth mama or the drug-addicted narcissist. She is neither. She is someone who has lived a life. A long and painful life that has altered her perspective. But the more she tries to talk to her daughters the less they want to hear what she has to say. She’s complex, not easily pinned down as one cliche or another — she’s a person, a complex human being. Imagine that.
As a beautiful young woman, Ruby has her pick of men. Corinealdi is one of the most exciting things to happen to film in a while — this film should launch her career. If it doesn’t, people aren’t paying enough attention. The two male supporting characters are really great — David Oyelowo and Omari Hardiwck. They both seem to represent different paths she could take — and yet she is also faced with an even more challenging one — devotion to the love of her life, following her heart vs. medical school, cashing in on her intelligence. How do you do complete yourself and as individual and still make a marriage work? Even if the men support you in what you’re doing how do you support yourself? How do you change the focus of your life?
To that end, Middle of Nowhere is revolutionary in its storytelling. It is haunting, unexpected, deeply erotic at times and ultimately the kind of thing that only comes around once in a decade. DuVernay is changing the landscape of filmmaking, as some other filmmakers have done this year — Benh Zeitlin, Lena Dunham, and Sarah Polley. But DuVernay is doing something different.
To watch a scene where three women are trying to communicate with each other, trying to do right by the one little man in their lives, Ruby’s nephew, who depends on them for everything (all of the men are gone) is a reality many of us live with every day and yet is never explored in film. You won’t see a single cliched character in this film and these three women I know. I know them in life yet I’ve never seen them in film . Why? Because black women in film have to be one or the other — they have to be all good or all bad but never actually fully fleshed out human beings. DuVernay gives us that and does it without wagging her finger at our warped society. She simply tells Ruby’s complex story with vivid imagery, subtle detail and genuine emotion. That Middle of Nowhere was written and directed by a woman is cause to celebrate and lets us see a brighter future not just for female storytellers but American film.
Middle of Nowhere is one of the best films of the year.