As Middle of Nowhere begins, Ruby appears simultaneously sure and unsure, her husband incarcerated and her life on hold.
"I can't do this. I can't even hold your hand," says Ruby (Emayatzy Corinealdi). She's sitting across a visiting room table from her husband, Derek (Omari Hardwick). He's sentenced to eight years in prison. Though they're near to one another, they're also set apart, unable to touch lest the guard intervene, unable to share the life they had envisioned, four years before. Still, Ruby insists, resolute in her decision to put off medical school and stay close to this LA facility where Derek resides. "We will talk every day," she says. "You will know about my day, I will know about yours."
As Middle of Nowhere begins, Ruby appears simultaneously sure and unsure, fearful in this terrible room surrounded by men in uniforms and women as blurs, determined to hold on to her marriage, proud and vulnerable and fierce. As much as Derek might mean to protect her from his own experience, not to tell her what goes on "back there," in the cellblocks, he's also uncertain. It's his first offense, he might get out early "with good time." But as much as he's telling Ruby to move on with her plans, he's also hopeful that she'll stick with him, that she'll support him in his own unknowable future.
As they contemplate what's ahead, the film, directed by Ava DuVernay -- the first black woman to win Best Director at Sundance -- offers bits and pieces of what's behind. Some of the couple's past is revealed in the usual gauzy flashbacks, smiles and gentle caresses, their bodies in rhythm as they walk together on a late afternoon. Middle of Nowhere presents these bits of a past as if they belong to Ruby, but they're also slipping away, increasingly fragmented and disordered, memories Ruby struggles to keep as she rides the bus to work or the prison, two hours each way.
That effort is framed by others. Her mother, Ruth (Lorraine Toussaint) urges her repeatedly not to make the mistakes she's made, namely, investing in the wrong man, forgetting her own aspirations, feeling abandoned and angry. Ruby and her sister Rosie (Edwina Findley) mostly avoid or tolerate her judgments, silent around her, trying to shield Rosie's young son Nickie (Nehemiah Sutton) from her outbursts. When she comes by Ruby's home and finds she's looking after NIckie one afternoon, Ruth laments Rosie's choices and complains that she hasn't been asked to babysit her own grandson: the camera remains fixed in the room where the boy sits on a couch, though only the top of his head is in frame, looking past him into the kitchen where Ruby listens to her mother, head down, trying not to look at her.
The doorframe here makes its own point, as the women appear caught within patterns of resentment and worry. Nickie's figure, even barely glimpsed, makes another, at once embodying that pattern and also offering a way beyond it, if only someone might see him. When Rosie and Ruby get together, they hope for alternatives or maybe just more of the same, imagining they'll find the right men. In this they repeat Ruth's story (as she puts it during one of her cautionary rants, "I used to pray someone would come along and help me") but also believe they'll do it differently. Rosie tells her sister she's brought her along to a fireworks show because she's read you should look for the kind of man you want in the kind of place he might be. "You want a man who's going to mow the lawn, you don’t go to a bar, you go to Home Depot. You want a man who'll take your son to the fireworks on the beach…" Ruby fills in the rest, "You go to fireworks on the beach."
It happens that the beach is where Ruby finds a man, Brian (David Oyelowo), a bus driver who recognizes her from his route. Though she does her best to put him off ("You see my ring, right?"), she also finds reasons to see him. But even as he seems fine -- agreeing to go see a movie she wants to see, one with subtitles (specifically, The Mother, where an older woman's affair with a young man has Brian double-checking what he thinks he's just seen) -- Ruby remains unsure. Fantasies and hopes have brought her to the point she's at, and while she remembers "good time" with Derek, she's also wary, her optimism shaken.
Not all doubts and disappointments yield wholly negative consequences. When the lawyer handling Derek's case, Alberta Fraine (Sharon Lawrence) tries to turn it over to an associate, claiming her time is too valuable to put into a parole hearing, Ruby fights back, and finds in herself a kind of surprising strength. As she comes to see herself differently, the close shots of her face show slight shifts, in the way she looks out on the world, in how she carries herself, in what she might see. As her memories slip and her hopes change, Ruby sees "options in front of me, other roads I could travel."
This even as she also sees that she's "still here." As Ruby works her way through what she can do and what she can't do, Middle of Nowhere doesn't reduce her options or resolve them. Instead, it observes her as she recognizes them as such, as she sees differently, resisting fantasies even as they remain seductive, charting ways out of -- or at least through -- the middle of nowhere.