Middle of Nowhere won director Ava DuVernay the US Directing Award: Dramatic at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, making her the first African-American woman to receive the award. It was well-deserved, to say the least. DuVernay has led a movie that reads on paper like a run-through of too many cliches about what some might consider stereotypically black experiences, but which in practice works completely. Middle of Nowhere is a small but powerful film.

Emayatzy Corinealdi plays Ruby, who drops out of medical school after her husband Derek (Omari Hardwick) goes to prison. Ruby wants to be able to be there for every visit and channel all the money she can accrue towards legal fees, and school just isn’t in the same picture. Four years later, every aspect of her life revolves around supporting Derek, to the detriment of most of her other relationships. When Derek’s prospects for parole turn grim, and Ruby develops a relationship with bus driver Brian (David Oyelowo), she begins to question what she’s done to her life.

I’ve written before about how independent films generally don’t follow traditional, Robert McKee-prescribed arcs of character growth. Instead, they’ll spend the majority of their run times exploring a frame of mind or mood, sometimes using it to bring their characters to an absolute extreme of situation or personality, to the point where they either break or change. Middle of Nowhere is firmly in that camp. At times, it can be frustrating to watch Ruby flounder, but that’s part of the point. People generally don’t come to Big Revelations so easily – they wear down gradually. There’s a reason for the film’s title – it’s all about being in a limbo period of life.

Corinealdi is terrific as Ruby. The film does a rather dramatic turnaround on her character. At first, her staunch stand-by-your man commitment seems admirable, but it becomes increasingly clear that she’s been acting against her own peace of mind and best interests for a long time. Corinealdi somehow manages to be tensely fragile and stalwartly strong at the same time. As Ruby’s mother, Ruth, Lorraine Toussaint pulls off a similar balancing act, as the movie also forces you to shift perspectives on what she’s like. Ruth is witheringly harsh on her children, but she’s also right about basically everything. Hardwick, despite playing a convicted felon, acts towards none of the stereotypes you might associate with him.

Really, the whole movie is about tackling subjects that, in lesser hands, can and have been made into cloying, racially condescending films. Prison. Absentee fathers. Struggling with money. And yet the film works with these themes and makes them fresh. It takes a beautifully measured and low-key approach, one that makes the characters and their problems feel authentic and relateable.

Andrew O’Hehir wrote a post about this movie, wondering, “will white audiences will see a black indie film?” It’s kind of sad that this is something we even have to discuss, but it’s relevant. Movies like this are sadly rare. I think though that this is a movie that most anyone could stand to benefit from seeing. Good character pieces, ones that strike at social issues in a graceful, subtle way, aren’t common, no matter what color skin the characters have. Hopefully, Middle of Nowhere will someday be in good company as a movie with an all-black cast and all-black creative team. For now, though, it stands on its own just fine.