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Five Nights in Maine
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by Jay Seaver

"Not exactly Vacationland."
4 stars

SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2016: Growing up in Maine (though born elsewhere), I've heard variations of the "almost a Mainer" joke that one character tells all my life, although it seldom seemed as pointedly exclusionary as it does in "Five Nights in Maine". Then again, I am not nearly so obviously "from away" as someone like this film's visitor is, even if the story doesn't always play into that as a mostly-quiet tale of grief.

The visitor is Sherwin (David Oyelowo), driving north from Atlanta after his wife Fiona (Hani Furstenberg) dies in a traffic accident. This will, apparently, be his first time meeting FIona's mother Lucinda (Dianne Wiest), although Fiona visited her recently - a trip which corresponds to Fiona backing off the couple's attempts to conceive a child. When he arrives, he's met not by Lucinda, but her nurse Ann (Rosie Perez), as Lucinda has been through some fairly aggressive chemotherapy recently.

Writer/director Maris Curran is telling a tale of how people grieve in different ways, and I suspect that one of the things she gets right is also a reason why at first blush the film didn't quite seem to gel: Sherwin and Lucinda don't work together, even when they have started feeling each other out and have had an experience or two that forms their own bond. That there's something missing in those scenes is an ovoid thing to say, but it's also literally true, and for as stilted as it sometimes makes the film, it highlights that the puzzle piece that would naturally connect the two is missing, and the very fact of Fiona's absence is not, in this case, quite enough to link the two. Curran doesn't ignore how their natural resentment of one another is a sort of relationship, but only briefly allows it to have anything close to the strength of what either would have with Fiona.

At times, that means that even when the two lead actors are both on screen, they're not exactly working with each other, but giving separate performances in the same room. They are two fairly good ones, although it must be noted that, aside from one sequence where it is obviously driving the action, the audience is told that Lucinda is in constant pain rather than shown it. That's defensible; it puts the spotlight far more on what a precise, abrasive person Lucinda has always been, but Dianne Wiest is good enough to both, and the character's unwillingness to show weakness might be more forceful if she occasionally couldn't help it.

David Oyelowo is kind of subdued himself, not exactly finding new facets to the man who joylessly drinks to numb his sadness. It's still a very well-done take on it, though, understated without becoming unemotional. Oyelowo gets a couple more scenes than Wiest to show Sherwin as obviously devastated and emotional, but it's the building up to them with moments where he is confused or trying to get by on top of being crushed where he shines, bringing that feeling through the film from start to end without it becoming overbearing or receding too far.

It's notable and important that Curran pairs the fairly impressive supporting cast with Oyelowo far more than Wiest - even the characters that more naturally align with Lucinda spend more time talking to Sherwin, emphasizing just how alone in the world losing her daughter will leave her. She pointedly avoids using Ann as a go-between, although Rosie Perez does nice work in the role, never rocking the boat but able to provide moments of empathy and levity that keep the film from becoming too monotonous without losing focus. On the other end of the "I can't believe they got her for such a relatively small part in such a small movie" spectrum, up-and-coming actress Teyonah Parris is very welcome as Sherwin's sister giving him the push he needs. Hani Furstenberg only gets brief moments to contribute as Fiona, but she establishes the missing person as imperfect while still leaving an impossible hole to fill.

With that amount of talent, it's not surprising that Curran gets a lot of great work out of the cast, even shooting much of the movie in close-up so that there's no room to hide faces or let other parts of the production carry the film for a moment with a striking image or bit of design. She does do well contrasting Atlanta and Maine - even when the spaces in Lucinda's home are tight, it seems a bit more empty than Sherwin's.

"Five Nights in Maine" is the sort of movie that impresses a bit more in retrospect, especially since Curran often avoids catharsis and climax, which means it can seem like a less engrossing film than one with shocking revelations and confrontations on tap. On the scale where the filmmakers close to work, on the other hand, it does well, giving a good cast the chance to do good work.

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originally posted: 05/04/16 14:55:46
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: Independent Film Festival Boston 2016 For more in the Independent Film Festival Boston 2016 series, click here.

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Directed by
  Maris Curran

Written by
  Maris Curran

  David Oyelowo
  Dianne Wiest
  Rosie Perez
  Teyonah Parris
  Hani Furstenberg

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