Middle of Nowhere probably wasn't intended to be a corrective to the Tyler Perry oeuvre, but Ava DuVernay's film goes right in a lot of places where Perry often goes wrong.
Most film critics don't have to deal with the problem of Tyler Perry, because the filmmaker and his studio take themselves out of the critical sight line: After the brutal notices of his first two (wildly successful) films, his regular distributor Lionsgate simply ceased screening his work in advance for critics. "Early on," Perry told the Urban Daily last February, "I realized that we were paying quite a bit of money to have these movies screened for critics around the country and most of the critiques were horrible. So I'm like, why am I paying for people to say these are terrible films?"
In a sense, everybody won: Perry didn't need critical kudos to make money, and critics were removed from the difficult position of having to wrestle with the Perry Problem. Here is a one-man cottage industry, a prolific and powerful filmmaker who makes films for an underserved audience while providing work to an army of black actors and technicians. But noble intentions are good enough, and the fact of the matter is, Perry is a terrible filmmaker. His staging is creaky, his dialogue is shrill and obvious, his pacing is grotesque, and his oft-worrisome messages are delivered with all the subtlety and finesse of a foghorn. But it's important that he's making these films, because no one else is—for the time being, anyway. Hopefully that's changing.
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Godard famously said that the best way to criticize a movie is to make another one, and while Ava DuVernay's Middle of Nowhere presumably was not devised as a response to the Perry oeuvre, this exceptional picture certainly serves a secondary function: As a feature-length instructional essay on all that Mr. Perry's two films a year do so poorly. Though the landscape of directors telling these stories is certainly barren (and dominated by Mr. Perry), the comparison is not simply a matter of contrasting the work of Perry with another black filmmaker. The connection comes into play when looking at the stories they're telling. Middle of Nowhere features exactly the kind of love-triangle narrative—the devoted wife, the flawed husband, and the option presented to her by a hard-working "good man"—that Perry explores in Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Meet the Browns, I Can Do Bad All By Myself, and elsewhere. On paper, Middle of Nowhere sounds like something directly out of the Perry playbook. But the filmmakers couldn't be more different, in style or maturity.
Emayatzy Corinealdi plays Ruby, and the film begins with her visiting her husband Derek (Omari Hardwick) in prison. He's just been sentenced to eight years, and she is determined to stand by him, promising weekend visits and daily phone calls, insisting that he'll get out in five years of "good time." He tries to resist: "I'm trying to tell you to keep going with your life... Don't stop for me." "You are me," she replies. "Remember?"
Four years pass. (Four years, the on-screen text adds, of good time.) Ruby works as an RN, her previously mentioned plans of medical school apparently scuttled. True to her word, she has visited Derek every weekend, and her dedication has been rewarded. Since he'll be entering into a solid home, Derek is being considered for an early release, even earlier than the five years they were hoping for. And then (I'm treading lightly here) something happens that shatters Ruby to pieces, forcing her to rethink her commitment and the value of it. And that's why she stops resisting the interest of Brian (David Oyelowo), the kind bus driver who takes her home from work and has taken a shine to her.
It sounds like soap opera, and played wrong—see the aforementioned Mr. Perry—it could be. But DuVernay (who also wrote the script) is less interested in plot mechanics than the emotional landscape of these characters. We get to know something of not just Ruby and Derek and Brian, but of Ruby's mother (Lorraine Toussaint), who regards her daughter with a mixture of love and disappointment, and her sister (Edwina Findley), who's got problems of her own. The story may be simple, but nothing in it is: These relationships are nuanced and complicated, and most scenes have two or thee levels of text and subtext happening in them, various (sometimes conflicting) messages in what's being said and what's being skipped.
Corinealdi is an actress previously unknown to me, but she has tremendous presence and knows how to engage the camera, which seems particularly tuned to the tiny displays of fear and regret that occasionally flicker across her warm, compassionate face. The character's dedication to a possibly/probably doomed relationship could be played as weakness, but she goes the other way—she will make this work and will not be told otherwise, and thus when things falls apart, it's all the more devastating. The way she finds her footing after that is where the movie's real power lies, and when she says, near the end, "This is not how we're supposed to be living," the directness and honesty of her words is remarkable. Hardwick's beats are somewhat more limited, but he does sadly stoic well, and Oyelowo (one of the many gifted performers cast adrift in the lamentable Paperboy) has one tremendous scene, where he the desperation rises in his voice as he asks Ruby, "We've got something here, don't we?"
DuVernay's direction is stylish but not distracting. She does some subtle, Soderbergh-ian intercutting of scenes to great effect, and adds in touches of magic realism in Ruby's moments alone, as she imagines her absent husband by her side or in her bed. As a storyteller, she has an interesting way of parsing out information without seeming to keep anything from us, and we trust her. Her command of tone is astonishing. The last beat with Derek, for instance, mixes heartbreak and eroticism in a way I've never seen onscreen.
It's surprising how few filmmakers have thought to tell these women's stories. We've seen them in other films, sure, signing in to sit across from their imprisoned men and gaze in their eyes, or maybe slip them some contraband. But most movies focus on men, and we're seldom given the opportunity to ride home with these women, and try to understand what their lives are like, what drives them to keep boarding that bus to see the man they cannot touch and cannot hold. Middle of Nowhere fills in some of those blanks and tells a moving story in its own right.
The contrasts are stark: Perry's films are broad, obvious melodrama, played and pitched at the simplest and most obvious level. DuVernay's is anything but simple. It is about real relationships and complicated emotions, and it regards its characters as people rather than types. It also seems a safe bet that, for her trouble, DuVernay will not see the kind of bang-up box office that we've come to expect from Mr. Perry's efforts. But hopefully we'll find that there's room for both in the marketplace: for the hyper-targeted, cookie-cutter product of the Perry machine, and for the artisan indie with a bit more on its mind.