Not every movie that traffics in close-ups of its characters is telegraphing tragedies about to befall them, but indie dramas about grief sure make it feel that way. Even audiences who enter Five Nights In Maine unaware of its premise may come to suspect that either Sherwin (David Oyelowo) or Fiona (Hani Furstenberg) is about to meet a terrible end from the way the married couple canoodles in close-up in the first scene—and Oyelowo, being the bigger name, isn’t a strong contender for an early death.
Close-ups continue as Fiona exits the story, capturing the collapse of Sherwin’s face as he learns that his wife has died in a car crash. In general, writer-director Maris Curran stays too close to this tragedy, both visually and narratively, for Maine to become one of those movies about a grieving spouse shutting themselves off from the world before learning to love again. When Sherwin heads from Atlanta to Maine to see Fiona’s ailing mother, Lucinda (Dianne Wiest), he’s still very much in the raw aftermath of his loss, in no condition to meet a fetching young woman who can get him to open his heart, life, etc.
And he doesn’t—not fully. That’s not a spoiler, because Curran’s film is at once admirable in its avoidance of easy sentiment and kind of predictable once its quiet seriousness makes itself known (which is to say very early on). Sherwin doesn’t quite know how to go on living, beyond his use of alcohol to numb his pain, and he knows even less about how to live with the difficult-to-please Lucinda, however temporarily. As they share awkward meals, sometimes prepared by Lucinda’s housekeeper, Ann (Rosie Perez), there are flashes of Sherwin’s loving but fraught relationship with Fiona.
Five Nights In Maine runs around 75 minutes without its end credits, but still manages to take its time getting to Maine, and to Lucinda. Her entrance about a third of the way through, along with Wiest’s flinty performance, conceal Lucinda’s physical weakness, a symptom of her ongoing fight with cancer; late in the film, the sight of her frail body registers as a little shock. Wiest conveys the sadness and anger of a difficult woman who expected to lose her own life before losing her daughter without many histrionics. It seems like an unnecessary fail-safe, then, that the movie has her howl her precise source of angst practically at the last minute—an interlude of big emotion in an otherwise murmur-toned elegy.
That tone suits Oyelowo’s quiet power; even when the handheld camera goes in close, it never catches him overacting. Perez, meanwhile, benefits from not having the camera held so close to her face all the time—not because she couldn’t handle the scrutiny, but because her plainspoken and very effective performance has more room to breathe. The most memorable shot in the movie also pulls back: When Sherwin goes for a swim in a pond, he dips underwater, and the camera stays fixed on a wide shot of the water’s surface, waiting, as seconds tick by, for him to reemerge.
Five Nights In Maine’s grieving has a short-story quality, and many movies would do well to follow that model. It’s the ambition to offer a more conventionally satisfying story, after all, that often leads to generic indies about the bereft receiving the healing gift of new romance. But the less-is-more approach doesn’t entirely work here. Close-ups can do a lot of expressive work for a movie, but they aren’t all-powerful. They can even create their own kind of numbing remove.