Could “Middle of Nowhere” Shake Up the Oscar Race?
I’ve been thrilled with the critical and popular reception that my favorite film of 2012, Beasts of the Southern Wild, has received since it was released earlier this summer. It should be a major contender in the Best Picture, Director (Benh Zeitlin) and Actress (Quvenzhané Wallis) categories at next year’s Oscars. Now another film that came out of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Best Director winner Ava DuVernay’s Middle of Nowhere, is nearing its theatrical release. It’ll screen as the closing-night film at this year’s Urbanworld Film Festival in New York City on Saturday, Sept. 22, in advance of its Oct. 12 major-market rollout. And while it’s not as wildly creative as Beasts, it’s every bit as emotionally effective.
Emayatzy Corinealdi gives a gorgeous lead performance as Ruby, a promising med student who suspends her studies while her husband (Omari Hardwick) serves an eight-year sentence on gun charges. DuVernay starkly depicts the dehumanizing conditions of the prison system, which pose a threat to the couple’s bond. Their relationship is shaken even more after Ruby meets a charming bus driver (Red Tails‘ bound-for-stardom David Oyelwo), who offers a romantic alternative on the outside.
In addition to the core trio, reliable character actress Lorraine Toussaint (Law & Order, Friday Night Lights) merits consideration for her searing supporting turn as Ruby’s understandably fed-up mother. And DuVernay deserves a hard look not just for Best Director but also for Best Original Screenplay. Like Lucy Alibar and Zeitlin’s Beasts, DuVernay’s script seamlessly mixes poetic passages with grittily realistic dialogue.
DuVernay’s skill for deeply honest writing is all the more impressive considering she started her career as a publicist, with clients including Urbanworld. When I spoke with her for an upcoming piece in the New York Daily News about the 16th annual festival, she pooh-poohed any Oscar talk, even as she was leaving the Humanitas awards, where her film had been nominated alongside Beasts for best indie feature. “I have no dreams of that—I really don’t,” she told me. “Being a publicist for so many years, knowing and handling awards-season campaigns, it demystified that process for me.”
Without a big studio like Beasts‘ Fox Searchlight behind it, Middle of Nowhere may in fact be an Oscar long shot. But I’m hoping it’ll move DuVernay closer to her true goal. “I want to make 20 films in 20 years—to make one after another and produce a canon,” she says. “Awards shows are nice, and it’s lovely to put a dress on, but it’s not what I think of first—thank goodness. I hope that never changes.”
Well on her way to realizing her dream, she’s currently directing a documentary for ESPN’s 30 for 30 series about Venus Williams’ fight for fair pay at Wimbledon, which involved British Parliament, Tony Blair and the UN. “It’s a little-known, fascinating story about a time in her life when she was a true feminist activist,” says DuVernay. “And I’ve finished my next script, which we’ll start shooting in February. I’m trying to stay busy!” That’s good news for fans of independent-minded cinema everywhere.
What are your early picks for next year’s Oscars? Post your predictions!