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Dennis Perkins

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives on the West End with his lovely wife Emily, where they watch all the movies ever made. When not digging up stories about the Maine film scene, he can be found writing for the AV Club and elsewhere. The rest of the time, he's worrying about the Red Sox.

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Posted: August 25, 2016

‘Five nights in Maine’ shows the state’s real, raw side

Written by: Dennis Perkins

 

Director of photography Sofian El Fani and director Maris Curran, who spent summers in Maine as a child, in Phippsburg on the set of "Five Nights in Maine." Photo courtesy of Maris Curran

Director of photography Sofian El Fani and director Maris Curran, who spent summers in Maine as a child, in Phippsburg on the set of “Five Nights in Maine.”
Photo courtesy of Maris Curran

Director Maris Curran’s debut feature “Five Nights In Maine” is about grief. And Maine, in Curran’s vision, is grief’s natural setting.

The independent film, which is having its Maine premiere at Frontier in Brunswick on Friday, stars David Oyelowo (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in “Selma”) as Sherwin, a happily married man whose wife, Fiona (Hani Furstenberg, “The Loneliest Planet”) is killed in an automobile accident early in the film.

David Oyelowo and Dianne Wiest in Maris Curran's "Five nights in Maine." Photo by Sofian El Fani/Courtesy of FilmRise

David Oyelowo and Dianne Wiest in Maris Curran’s “Five nights in Maine.”
Photo by Sofian El Fani/Courtesy of FilmRise

Rudderless in his grief, Sherwin impulsively decides to drive from Atlanta to the Maine home of Fiona’s difficult, semi-estranged mother, Lucinda (two-time Oscar winner Dianne Wiest). Lucinda’s dying of cancer, cared for by her loyal nurse, Ann (Rosie Perez), and seemingly as uninterested in connecting with her now former son-in-law as the shell-shocked Sherwin realizes he is in reaching out to her. Over five days, they warily circle each other, revealing their pain and mutual resentment only in snatches, or not at all.

It’s a difficult film. Not in the bombastic way of most movies about grief, but because Curran (who also wrote the script) and her actors stubbornly refuse to provide the catharsis we expect. The brief movie (about 80 minutes) plays out in meditative vignettes, and neither Oyelowo nor Wiest seek to soften their very different but similarly closed-off characters.

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Sherwin drinks, smokes, jogs and rattles around the immaculate country house of this woman he barely knows, his pain mixed with the knowledge that his late wife harbored very mixed feelings about her mother. Lucinda, frail and shaky in her illness, nonetheless holds her guest off with cool glances and passive aggressive asides.

The film explores the horrible awkwardness of grief, when tragedy forces together people whose shared connection to the dead does nothing to erase the fact that, apart from their pain, they truly have nothing in common. And for Sherwin, a black man in the whitest state in the country, the sidelong glances he receives from Lucinda’s rural neighbors only serve to paint his sudden isolation more starkly.

The Phippsburg set of "Five Nights in Maine." Photo by Daniel Cowles

The Phippsburg set of “Five Nights in Maine.” Photo by Daniel Cowles

“Five Nights In Maine,” which was shot largely in Phippsburg in the fall of 2014, gave Curran, who spent her childhood summering in the state, an opportunity to show the Maine she loves. At the same time, she knew that Maine’s uniqueness was just the right setting for this story of loneliness, isolation and, for Sherwin, an additional level of coldness.

“It’s Maine in a way we haven’t seen in cinema very often,” said Curran, who lives in Los Angeles. “It’s showcasing the beauty, but not in a ‘Vacationland’ way. Maine is a very special place. It’s also one of the whitest, more conservative places in New England. It’s a place where you can imagine Sherwin finding solace in being in the place where his wife was from — and also a place where he could feel totally alienated.”

The Maine of “Five Nights In Maine” is like an externalization of the flinty Lucinda’s personality. Out walking through the scrub woods by Lucinda’s house, Sherwin strips down to submerge himself in a pond’s black water, disappearing amidst the half-sunken dead trunks of trees. Walking the dirt road back to the house, a pickup truck slows as it passes the disheveled, unfamiliar black man, and Sherwin later finds his jog through the woods turn suddenly frightening when hunting rifles ring out, seemingly all around him.

Like all of “Five Nights In Maine,” these scenes play out with a matter-of-factness that can make the film seem inconsequential. As much weight falls on scenes of Sherwin making lunch or washing dishes. But — especially in watching two powerful, vivid actors like Oyelowo and Wiest — the cumulative effect is ultimately as affecting as it is enigmatic.

For Curran, the film’s Maine setting was central to her vision of this story, and so she passed on opportunities to film in places like upstate New York, where tax incentives make location filming more attractive for a low budget film like this.

“Apart from the communities we shot in, which were extremely generous, it was important to shoot in Maine. It enriched the story to film in the place where the story actually takes place,” she said.

And that place, in “Five Nights In Maine,” is as beautiful and as lonely as Mainers know Maine can be. Cinematographer Sofian El Fani (“Blue Is The Warmest Color” ) shot the film completely with a hand-held camera, and the constantly moving, up-close immediacy of the shots is seemingly at odds with the film’s somber, meditative tone. There’s a removed, no-nonsense Maine on screen here — “ruggedly beautiful” is how Curran puts it — that presents viewers, like Sherwin, little comfort.

Curran knows Maine can be like that in real life, too, even for a respected actor coming to work here. “For David as a black man, coming to Maine was about being an outsider,” says Curran. “There’s an element of race that’s part of the fabric of the film, and that’s an undeniable part of the experience, even if it’s not the theme, per se. We live in a world where magnificent actors like David and Rosie can be in a film about huge experiences and not just say that the one theme of the film, if it stars actors of color, has to be about race. The theme is love and loss.”

Ultimately, “Five Nights In Maine” plays out like a character study of two people who, had they not loved the same person, would never have spent five days and nights under the same roof. The film is like a short story, in that we are presented with this snapshot of two lives and are left to fill in much of the meaning and the context. Processed that way, what can seem inconsequential or thin in traditional movie terms sticks with you, especially considering the actors involved. (In addition to Oyelowo and Wiest, Rosie Perez gives a low-key gem of a performance in her scenes as the stalwart Ann.)

Maine in the movies is traditionally either dumbed down, sanitized or outright impersonated by someplace cheaper. The version in “Five Nights In Maine” may not be an idealized Maine, but it’s a uniquely authentic and complex one.

“Five Nights in Maine,” starring David Oyelowo and Dianne West

WHERE: Frontier, 14 Maine St., Brunswick, 725-5222. explorefrontier.com
WHEN: 2, 5 and 8 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. Saturday,
3 and 7 p.m. Sunday
WHAT ELSE: Stream the film on Google play, iTunes, VUDU, Amazon, Dish TV, DIRECTV, Sling TV or VUBIQUITY

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