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3 reviews, 3 user ratings

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Come Early Morning
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Ashley Judd Finally Reminds Us Why We Liked Her In The First Place"
4 stars

Although there have been plenty of unpleasant trends in the world of film over the last few years–pointless remakes, hideous exercises in gore-porn and a general dumbing-down that has resulted in many critics and audiences rejecting the beauty of a genius like Terrence Malick for the heavy-handed hackwork of Paul Haggis–but few have been as depressing to watch as the downward artistic spiral of the career of Ashley Judd. When she burst on the scene with her performance in the small indie film “Ruby In Paradise,” she immediately demonstrated that she had the looks of a movie star, the talent of a real actress and the kind of on-screen presence that comes along once in a blue moon. In subsequent films like “Heat” and “Smoke,” she showed that “Ruby in Paradise” was no fluke by going toe-to-toe with the likes of Robert De Niro, Val Kilmer and Harvey Keitel while more than holding her own. Then in 1997, she appeared as an emotionally frazzled woman who goads her hapless husband into committing a series of bank robberies in the criminally underseen “A Normal Life” and delivered what I still feel to be arguably the single best performance by an American film actress during the Nineties.

After those performances, however, she seemed hell-bent on squandering all the goodwill that she had amassed on a series of deadly dull romantic comedies (“Where the Heart Is,” “Someone Like You”–even the titles speak of drab desperation) and idiotic thrillers in which it appeared that every man not named Morgan Freeman was out to get her for some reason or another (“Double Jeopardy,” “High Crimes,” “Twisted” and other generic names). It wasn’t so much that she was making silly and formulaic pictures–one needs to feed the dogs and put gas in the car–but the fact that she was just cranking them out one after another without even trying to mix things up. After a while, even audiences began to tire of these things and after the failure of the abysmal “Twisted” (a film so dumb that it should be seen just to witness how daft such an enterprise can get), I suspect that she found herself at a crossroads–she could either continue to go down the road of safe formula films or try to challenge herself by reconnecting with the kind of meaty character parts that brought her acclaim in the first place. Luckily, she appears to have chosen wisely and her latest film, “Come Early Morning,” is a wonderful little independent film that features what is by far her best performance since “A Normal Life”–one so good, in fact, that it almost makes up for the likes of “Twisted.

In the film, Judd plays Lucy, a young woman in a small Southern town whose life has fallen into a rut. By day, she works for a construction firm, takes care of older relatives and maintains a frosty relationship with her estranged father (Scott Wilson). By night, she gets hammered at the local honky-tonk and indulges in a series of spiritless one-night stands that usually end with her sneaking off in the morning while the guy is still asleep. As her roommate (Laura Prepon) points out, this is a lifestyle that can’t go on forever (“When was the last time you kissed somebody sober?”) and as the film progresses, Lucy slowly tries to change her ways. She picks up an injured dog and tries to nurse it back to health. She starts attending church with her father in an effort to reestablish a relationship. Most importantly, she meets Cal (Jeffrey Donovan) and discovers that he just might be someone worth getting to know better instead of slipping out before breakfast.

From this description, you probably think that you can see exactly where the film is going–a series of big emotional moments ready-made for Oscar clips and one of the real pleasures of “Come Early Morning” is that is doesn’t go for those cheap and easy moments. As in real life, there are no magical conversions or revelations and things are no instantaneously resolved after a well-timed speech. Despite her best efforts, Lucy still screws up and when the inevitable moment comes when it appears that she and Cal are going to split up for good before a reconciliation, it plays as it might in a real relationship and not simply as a necessity of the screenplay to get to the uplifting finale. Another interesting aspect is the way that the film handles the subplot of Lucy going to church. Having seen more than my share of heartfelt indie films over the years, I expected a moment in which Lucy would either undergo a miraculous transformation or denounce religion as a scam in favor of bland self-help mantras. Instead, it finds a more truthful approach to the material that is just about perfect.

As Lucy, Ashley Judd is really quite extraordinary–as with her roles in “Ruby in Paradise” and “A Normal Life,” something about this character seems to have struck a chord deep within her and she has responded accordingly. The result is one of those rare performances that is rings so deep and true that the line between performer and character is essentially obliterated and it feels as if we are flies on the wall watching a real woman going about her daily business. And while Judd is clearly the film’s center, there are a number of nice supporting performances to be had as well–Jeffrey Donovan is quite good as Cal without coming off as too good to be true and Scott Wilson, Diane Ladd, Pat Corley and Tim Blake Nelson make brief but vivid impressions as various members of Lucy’s dysfunctional family that go a long way towards explaining how she got to where she was when we first saw her.

“Come Early Morning” marks the writing and directing debut of Joey Lauren Adams, the actress best known as the central character in Kevin Smith’s “Chasing Amy.” After her delightful performance in that film, you would have expected that people would have been fighting each other to deploy her serious dramatic chops, her sly sense of humor and her charming personality but like too many other worthwhile actresses, she found herself relegated to roles where she played the unimportant girlfriend to the lead actor (“Big Daddy”) or the equally unimportant sister/best pal to the lead actress (I can almost guarantee that “The Break-Up” would have been a lot more interesting if she had played the lead role and Jennifer Aniston had been tossed the second banana bone). Instead of settling for those roles, she decided to take a chance on making her own film and based on her work here, she is not simply another actor who decides to direct as an act of vanity. Her work here is that of a natural filmmaker–like such people as Victor Nunez and David Gordon Green, she has a real flair for capturing the slow and lazy rhythms of small-town life without any sense as well as a facility for working with actors. While there are a couple of minor first-timer stumbles here and there (there is an overly symbolic jukebox that I could have lived without), her work here is strong and sure enough to make me eager to see her next effort. If she decides to permanently move behind the camera, as she has suggested in interviews, it would be kind of a shame to not see her acting anymore but if she continues to make films as good as “Come Early Morning,” it would be an acceptable trade-off.

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originally posted: 11/10/06 16:12:26
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2006 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Chicago Film Festival For more in the 2006 Chicago Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Austin Film Festival For more in the 2006 Austin Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

7/02/07 Kim This movie is so real, unlike all the other 'Hollywood' movies 5 stars
11/18/06 Dorothy Still discussing this movie with friends. I liked it a lot. Plan to see it again soon. 4 stars
11/14/06 elaine harris enjoyed it very much, buy like you couldn't understand the nana & Uncle Tim relationship; a 4 stars
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  10-Nov-2006 (R)
  DVD: 20-Mar-2007



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