Middle of Nowhere, winner of the Best Director Award at Sundance earlier this year, is a beautifully directed mood piece. It opens with a woman on a bus and closes with that same woman waiting for a bus. But despite being so-often in transit, the journey she takes over the course of the film is entirely within herself.
That woman is Ruby (Emayatzy Corinealdi), a smart, determined wife whose husband in in prison. The movie is deliberately vague in the beginning about why Derek (Omari Hardwick) is behind bars. But Ruby's commitment to the relationship makes it impossible to dismiss him as just a bad guy. In an early scene we see the couple talking across a low table in the poorly lit room at the prison, as Ruby explains her plan to drop out of medical school. She can't go to school and also make the four-hour round trip to the prison every visiting day and also be home when he's allowed to call during the week. Derek resists this plan. You can't put your life on hold for me, he pleads with her. But she is steadfast. They are in this together.
The sentence is for eight years, but early release is likely with good behavior. Ruby makes Derek repeat the bit about early release, a hopeful mantra that will sustain them through the years of waiting. And then she gets to work, as a nurse. She takes the night shift in order to catch those phone calls, pouring herself into the effort to keep up Derek's spirits and to pay the legal fees.
Ruby's mother and sister and nephew all live nearby. And she pours herself into their lives as well. The women have complicated and sometimes strained relationships with each other that are never entirely explained. But the lack of specifics enhances that which is universal about the ways regret, disappointment, and fear can compress love into a bitter pill. Mother Ruth (the always impeccable Lorraine Toussaint) clearly disapproves of Ruby's decision to drop out of school in deference to her marriage. And she also disapproves of Ruby's sister Rosie (Edwina Findley), whether for her fatherless child or something else is unclear.
About the role, Toussaint has said, "Like all mothers, we want our children to be better than us. We don't want them to make the same mistakes. She wants desperately to get [her daughters] back on the road that will bring them more success and well-being than she has known as well as less heartache than she has known. In that process to guide them, she does it in hurtful ways as mothers often do, especially with daughters."
The continual friction and angst among these women is heartbreaking because it's so clearly a function of the disappointments they're all struggling against. In one scene, Ruby asks Ruth for money to cover a legal bill, at the end of which the mother gruffly tells her daughter to "hold her head up." This line could be understood as a reprimand for the request, or as an encouragement to a woman working as hard as she can and still falling short. And the scene is made devastating by the fact it's unclear which reading the mother intends. Perhaps it's both.