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Middle of Nowhere

Solidly acted but aloof and slow as molasses, "Middle of Nowhere" seems neither here nor there.

With: Emayatzy Corinealdi, David Oyelowo, Omari Hardwick, Lorraine Toussaint, Edwina Findley, Sharon Lawrence, Dondre Whitfield, Troy Curvey III, Maya Gilbert.

Solidly acted but aloof and slow as molasses, “Middle of Nowhere” seems neither here nor there in charting a young Los Angeles woman’s uncertainty over whether to stay committed to her jailed husband or to ride into the sunset with a gentle bus driver. Waffling alongside its heroine, this second feature from writer-director Ava DuVernay (“I Will Follow”) unaccountably withholds key info about the hubby’s conviction while stretching minimal dramatic incident across a pictorially fuzzy canvas. Neither the film’s snippets of humor nor its soulful lead perf by Emayatzy Corinealdi appear enough to bring an appreciative audience to “Nowhere.”

For the most part somber in tone, DuVernay’s pic opens with med student Ruby Murray (Corinealdi) visiting the taciturn, tatted-up Derek (Omari Hardwick) in prison, where he’s serving an eight-year stretch on an unspecified conviction. Cut to four years later, and Ruby, supernaturally patient, still hopes her husband will get sprung early for good behavior. Alas, his ambiguous involvement in a prison melee ends up compromising his prospects for parole and costing the cash-strapped Ruby in lawyer fees, begrudgingly loaned to her by her disapproving mom (a scene-stealing Lorraine Toussaint).

At first, Ruby is only vaguely tempted to return the attention of handsome bus driver Brian (David Oyelowo), but she becomes more compelled to play the field upon discovering that Derek has been keeping some rather sordid secrets in prison.

Lengthy scenes of Ruby and Brian exchanging tender affections only accentuate the pic’s dramatic inertia. More problematic still is DuVernay’s refusal to divulge the nature of Derek’s felony sentence, making it impossible for a viewer to share fully in Ruby’s dilemma or to judge whether she’s stumbling toward the right choices. Even a late-reel flashback to the husband’s apprehension by ATF agents keeps the basic details annoyingly unclear.

Unfailingly alert, if often wet-eyed, Corinealdi makes an appealing impression, as does the muscular Oyelowo, although the imprecision of the screenplay and direction lets the actors down. By default, the most memorable exchange between Ruby and Brian has her expressing her preference for subtitled screen fare, prompting him to exclaim, “You mean a brother’s gotta read?”

The film’s use of L.A. locations is sparse and unconvincing. Intermittent R&B tunes are DOA, while tech credits, including Bradford Young’s soft-edged videography, appear merely passable.

Middle of Nowhere

Production: A Kandoo Films, Forward Movement production. Produced by Howard Barish, Ana DuVernay, Paul Garnes. Directed, written by Ava DuVernay.

Crew: Camera (color, widescreen, DV), Bradford Young; editor, Spencer Averick; music, Kathryn Bostic; music supervisor, Morgan Rhodes; art directors, Jennifer Spence, Bill Lakoff, Claudia Roque; set decorator, Ilka Urbach; costume designer, Stacy Beverly; sound, James Castro, Mr Woody Stubblefield, Joe Hettinger, Dan Monahan, Matthew Burgette; supervising sound editor, Kunal Rajan; re-recording mixer, Tom Marks; associate producer, Tilane Jones; assistant director, J. Black; casting, Aisha Coley. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 20, 2012. Running time: 101 MIN.

Cast: With: Emayatzy Corinealdi, David Oyelowo, Omari Hardwick, Lorraine Toussaint, Edwina Findley, Sharon Lawrence, Dondre Whitfield, Troy Curvey III, Maya Gilbert.

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