When Ruby (played by the stunning Emayatzy Corinealdi) tells the new man in her life she likes "indie" movies, it's both a declaration of identity and a dare. The man, Brian (David Oyelowo), a bus driver who for months has politely but persistently pursued Ruby after driving her home from her overnight nursing shift at an L.A. hospital, translates "indie" as "movies where a brother's got to read." This is true of the film Ruby inevitably takes him to see, Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, but in terms of barrier to entry for a man entering Fassbinder's provocative interracial May-December romance unaware, subtitles are small potatoes.
Ruby's choice of a date-night movie, though clearly meant as a test of Brian's open-mindedness, is not really essential to the plot of Middle of Nowhere, which follows Ruby's identity crisis amid the painful forced realization that her marriage to presumed soul mate Derek (Omari Hardwick) is not what she thought it was. But the movie date, and the conversation that sets it up, seems crucial to writer-director Ava DuVernay's larger project.
The movies Ruby likes, as she warns Brian, don't play in South Los Angeles; going to see them requires traveling out of their comfort zone, physically and mentally. Indie movies not only don't play in those neighborhoods, but also don't often reflect those areas, nor do they customarily focus on the material realities and inner lives of characters like Ruby, a working black woman who has put big dreams on hold to support her incarcerated husband. In the world of Middle of Nowhere, a realistically complicated woman such as Ruby, daunted by obstacles both societal and self-generated, can't see herself onscreen. That's a real-world problem that publicist-turned-filmmaker DuVernay is working to correct, with this movie and with the grassroots distributor she founded, African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement.
The remarkably self-assured, microbudget Middle, for which DuVernay won the Best Director prize at Sundance (making her the first African-American woman to do so), languidly follows the unraveling of a pact made in its first scene. With Derek about to begin an eight-year sentence, Ruby declares she'll drop out of medical school so she can devote herself to keeping their relationship alive and creating a stable home for him to come back to, all in faith that he'll earn parole after five years of "good time." He tries to talk her out of pressing pause on her future for him, but she's insistent: They're in this together. "You are me," Ruby tells her husband. "Remember?" That his memory is apparently foggier than hers is the first red flag that all is not right in this union.
Skip ahead four years. We still don't know why Derek is locked up — DuVernay takes her time revealing what he's accused of, letting us wonder, as we take in Ruby's initially staunch support of her man, if he's actually guilty of anything or is merely a casualty of the system — but we know that if he has behaved himself, he'll be out of jail in a few months. Yet, with the prize so close in sight, Derek begins giving signs that he doesn't want it, forcing Ruby to question the bond to which she has held herself for half a decade. The deterioration of Ruby's marriage coincides with the blossoming of her attraction to Brian, but it's not as simple as swapping one mate for another; both actress and filmmaker bravely leave Ruby's feelings and intentions murky. Call this a triumph of both black and female characterization, but the truth is it's rare that any American film allows a lead character to hold contradictory emotions.
Like Ruby, DuVernay's film resists easy categorization. Formally, there's a powerful tension between aesthetics and content. Although the director demonstrates a gift for sultry, music-motivated montages, the meat of the movie lies in its daringly long dialogue scenes. The filmmaker's stolid, unblinking eye serves as a sharp contrast to Ruby's impatience to claim the life she has been fantasizing about. The film's naturalistic performances and austere, gray-violet palette misdirect from the fact that much of the material is psychological; the "real" is woven through with heightened flourishes to blur the line between actual and imagined truth. A slow-motion-enhanced kiss scene, with Corinealdi in top I-don't-give-a-fuck strut, is a startling example of DuVernay's ability to conjure drama that at once takes place in a character's head and in a recognizable real world. It's beautifully nuanced and confidently ambiguous — and so is the movie.