At the Sundance Film Festival in January, Ava DuVernay’s second feature, Middle Of Nowhere, was almost scandalously overlooked, even though—or more likely, because—it fits the Sundance template to a T. Modest, character-driven dramas were once the festival’s driving force, but they’ve long since been eclipsed by stunt-driven projects like Beasts Of The Southern Wild, especially those with young directors who can easily be marketed as the latest in a long line of Next Big Things. (The climate being what it is, it also unfortunately doesn’t help that the movie’s subjects are middle-class African-Americans, and DuVernay’s name isn’t Tyler Perry.)
DuVernay, a longtime publicist who only recently began making her own movies, isn’t a young turk, and Middle Of Nowhere shows little interest in flaunting its writer-director’s command of her craft. But the story of a woman (Emayatzy Corinealdi) who drops out of her metropolitan medical school to be closer to the remote prison where her husband (Hardwick) is serving an eight-year term, is an uncommonly thoughtful, accomplished realization of familiar form, and a reminder of why that form—and the festival that once celebrated it—exists in the first place.
With unfussy lyricism and a hard-nosed lack of sentiment, DuVernay sets Corinealdi on the fine line between loyalty and self-sacrifice, wondering at what point, if any, her devotion to maintaining her marriage might slide into simple foolishness. When a bus driver (David Oyelowo) begins, subtly but persistently, to explore the limits of her commitment, she rebuffs him, but her curiosity is piqued—less because of loneliness or sexual desire, though those certainly factor in, than because she herself wonders how strong she is, and whether strength consists in shutting out temptation or facing it up close.
The power of Middle Of Nowhere is cumulative, conveyed in sustained tone and deepening character rather than bravura sequences or explosive confrontations. But its lack of pyrotechnics doesn’t translate to a paucity of feeling. If anything, it’s more affecting for the leisurely way it rolls out its story, allowing each step to resonate before moving on to the next.