‘Five Nights in Maine’
Maris Curran
Stars: David Oyelowo, Diane Wiest
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

To repurpose a Tolstoy line: All grief is alike; everyone’s grief is terrible in its own terrible way. And yet “Five Nights in Maine” can often seem like a grief movie like too many others. David Oyelowo plays Sherwin, first seen canoodling with his wife (Hani Furstenberg). A couple introduced as happy is a surefire way of saying one of them is about to die. Sure enough, she will suffer a freak car accident. Sherwin will drink and smoke and quietly rage. But he’ll no doubt be slowly coaxed out his shell of misery, if not before staring repeatedly into space, going for runs and other forms of only quasi-cinematic therapy.

If “Five Nights in Maine” seems overly familiar in the big picture, it’s less so when it comes to specifics. For one thing, Sherwin isn’t revived by just anyone. He winds up reluctantly paying a visit to Lucinda (Diane Wiest), his late wife’s semi-estranged mother, who lives in a tasteful house on the edges of a small Nowhere town. Lucinda is withering away thanks to leukemia, on top of grieving for a daughter with whom she never patched things up. She’s not the type to handle it well, even considering. She’s prickly, cold, quick with a withering comment or accusation. Lucinda almost seems to delight in delivering upsetting news to her former son-in-law. When he breaks down and cries over one revelation, she simply gets up and leaves the room, with nary a word.

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This will all work out, but not as much as you’d expect. “Five Nights in Maine” is sincere about the importance of forging connections in the wake of tragedy, but it also knows that recovery isn’t just slow; it’s never-ending. Neither Sherwin nor Lucinda are “healed” by film’s end, and the strides they’ve made are relatively minor. It’s earnest yet tough, close in composure to Lucinda’s nurse, played by Rosie Perez, whose warm-yet-shellshocked face betrays both understanding and understandable exasperation. The movie, too, is gentle yet, in pockets, sharply critical. No big deal is made of Sherwin’s interracial marriage, but going to the boondocks of Maine unearths subtle, barely detectable notes of discomfort, even from Lucinda.

It could still stand a touch more meat on it. First-time director Maris Curran not only managed to score three excellent actors, but also Sofian El Fani, the cinematographer of “Blue is the Warmest Color.” His camera zeroes in on faces, creating spaces that seem to swallow up the characters, even when they’re outdoors. But he still doesn't get much to do. “Five Nights in Maine” is so subtle that there’s sometimes little else to film — or, for viewers, to enjoy — aside from great actors’ faces. It’s a small movie, often to a fault. But every time you’re about to write it off as “Generic Grief Indie #451,” it surprises you.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge