Maris Curran’s Five Nights in Maine has very little new to offer. At least two films in the last six months alone have dealt with a similar premise, chronicling the aftermath of the death of a loved one—Jean-Marc Valée’s Demolition and Sean Meshaw’s Tumbledown—but even with the add-ed wrinkle of a character coping with death through the help of an in-law, this film is painfully familiar. Which means the primary appeal of this film lies in watching two actors with supreme control of their gifts go toe-to-toe in emotional warfare. But even as tensions roil between these two performers tossing scathing accusations back and forth, Curran’s directorial touch is so muted she inevitably numbs her own drama.
As the film begins, Sherwin (David Oyelowo), is waiting for his wife, Fiona (The Loneliest Plan-et’s Hani Furstenberg) to return home, but receives a call informing him that she’s died in a traffic accident. In the subsequent days, Sherwin erects a chrysalis of sadness around himself, whiling away his days crying, drinking and smoking. Curran has a light touch in these initial scenes, even though her imagery threatens to tip at any moment into ponderousness. Shots like a fleeting glance at Fiona’s lipstick smudges on an unwashed glass, or a longing look at the urn that arrives at his home from an irritatingly chipper man from the crematorium are played effectively, with an understated poeticism.
Curran breaks this potential narrative stagnancy quickly, introducing Sherwin’s sister, Penelope (the consistently excellent Teyonah Parris), who offers an outside view of the extent of his depression. Reluctant to return to normalcy, he accepts an invitation to convalesce with Fiona’s mother, Lucinda (Dianne Wiest), in Maine. Still in a state of emotional decay, he hopes the trip can offer some measure of closure about Fiona’s disastrous visit to her mother’s shortly before her accident.
Curran is purposefully vague about both Fiona and Lucinda’s relationship and Sherwin’s experiences, only offering a hint of deep-seated resentment and disconnection via flashbacks. Suffering from cancer, Lucinda now lives alone under the daily care of Ann (Rosie Perez), a kindly caretaker who’s coy about her own knowledge of what happened. During his days in Maine, Sherwin wanders the surrounding wilderness, rehabilitating in nature, but at meal times he faces the unfailing directness of Lucinda. She doesn’t mince words and she’s as likely to compliment the food as attack him about whether he was responsible for Fiona’s death. “She was just here and fine—what happened?”, she asks nastily, minutes into their first meal together. As Lucinda, Wiest is believably irritating as a woman who micromanages every-one around her, and there’s a compelling dynamic in the juxtaposition of Lucinda’s stinging passive aggression, and Sherwin’s conflicting annoyance and obligation to attend to this fragile woman.
Shot by talented cinematographer Sofian El Fani (Timbuktu, Blue Is the Warmest Color), Five Nights In Maine looks frequently gorgeous. The outside photography has a trance-like seren-ity, especially paired with the film’s ambient-like score; with its blend of sprinkled piano, synth tones, and the musique concrète of dripping water and rustling air, the film finds its greatest energy in these scenes.
Curran has a far more difficult time elevating basic scenes of conversation. With Fani, she has a knack for mise-en-scène, as in a finely composed exchange between Sherwin and Lucinda, positioned at opposite angles at a kitchen table. But there’s a general awkwardness to the rhythms of dialogue in the film, particularly surprisingly in the rapport between Oyelowo and Wiest. In a late example, Lucinda leaves the room after Sherwin confronts her in what feels like it should be a pivotal moment, but it barely registers. The script’s characterizations often seem more illogical than moving.
There are other minor character details that are better left experienced, but Curran’s film as a whole just comes off as unbalanced. Despite an ominous foreshadowing in the cutting and steadily escalating music, the film doesn’t lead to a big fight or any Earth-shattering revelations. That’s somewhat refreshing—but it also can’t help but make Five Nights in Maine overly slight, especially with an ending that practically represents the archetype of an Indie Film, cheapening what’s been all about respecting each person’s very personal journey through grief.
Director: Maris Curran
Writer: Maris Curran
Starring: David Oyelowo, Dianne Wiest, Rosie Perez, Teyonah Parris, Hani Furstenberg, Bill Raymond
Release Date: August 5, 2016