Any tragedy in any relationship is difficult. There’s a need for comfort and understanding, to let people grieve how they want. There’s a need to communicate and come together to share pain yet, as it always happens, mourning gets messy.
Now imagine tragedy on a small scale, in your relationship, but zoomed out across bloodlines. If your husband or wife, boyfriend or girlfriend, were to pass away, what would it be like to grieve with and be comforted by your partner’s family? How does this relate to their parents? Yes, many people have great relationships with in-laws but a lot of people do not. A spouse’s family are people we get as an added bonus in relationships and, unless you live near said new relatives, your communication and understanding of each other is framed by holidays, celebrations, vacations, and similar short bursts of forced interaction. If you add in differences of cultures and circumstances—like race, sexuality, gender, income inequality, etc.—the situation can be exaggerated, pulled taut by differing opinions and connectivity to said loved one.
The movie Five Nights In Maine is an exploration of this relationship played out between David Oyelowo and Dianne Wiest. The film follows Oyelowo’s character—Sherwin—in the immediate aftermath of his wife’s untimely death. The situation leads Sherwin up to Maine to see his sickly mother-in-law—Wiest’s Lucinda—who is grieving in her own way. Five Nights In Maine plays out two tense dynamics of sadness, offering a bit of a tragic nightmare grounded in the real world: sharing your sadness with your partner’s family despite losing the connective tissue between you.
The film quietly explores this situation, weaving the comedy in sadness with the strained dramatics surrounding the performance of grief. The film centers on this power struggle between Oyelowo and Wiest, who trade grief as a currency, seeking to answer the film’s leading question: who has more ownership of the dead? The partner of the deceased or the parent of the deceased? Anyone who has been in a relationship where you have lived together for more than four years knows that this negotiation is very difficult as Five Nights In Maine‘s dramas unfold at holiday dinners and during visits by relatives, as a parent mentions that this is their child’s favorite food when—in reality—you know that is a lie. This is who their child is, the parent stresses, when you know better than they do.
Moreover, there is a generation gap that plays out so wonderfully and subtly through Oyelowo’s expressions of grief. He drinks a lot but, as many young adults know, it’s excessive but not insane. It’s unhealthy but within the limits of “a bad week.” But to someone else’s parent? Too much. You are put in a position to see his relationship to substance as your own, through Wiest’s point of view, as someone in and from a different time and place and culture.
Undercutting this in a very subtle way is the balancing of the minority experience in relationship to conservative views. In the film, this manifests itself in terms of race but could easily be sexuality or gender identity or income: there is a constant prickling in dialogue, an underline under the screen that something else is happening besides grief. Is it that Wiest’s character is somewhat prejudiced or is she lost in her sadness, reacting from the emotional mind instead of the intelligent mind? The film doesn’t answer the question but leaves you with it. What is the truth here?
Five Nights In Maine was written and directed by Maris Curran and is her debut feature. What she accomplishes with such a small cast—which also features the delightful Rosie Perez as a caregiver to Wiest and Teyonah Parris as Oyelowo’s sister—in a little over eighty minutes is quite a feat. As many have noted, the film feels like a short story and is constructed to be a quiet, little look into a timeless yet contemporary moment in adulthood. Along with the strong, diverse cast, Five Nights In Maine takes you into the mind of tragedy, for you to see yourself in it and to learn from it. Isn’t that what the movies are all about?
Five Nights In Maineis out now in limited release and available on demand. Learn more about the film here.