In 1993, Ashley Judd starred in a disarmingly modest Southern indie movie called Ruby in Paradise. She played a young woman from the rural South (Kentucky, or maybe Tennessee) who packs her car in the opening credits, fleeing a bad relationship, and heads south to Florida to start a new life. She gets a job at a beachfront gift shop. She makes a few friends. She has a couple of relationships -- one bad, one good but complicated. In typical movie narrative terms, nothing happens. But that nothing encompasses everything. Years ago a good friend and fellow Ruby in Paradise admirer labeled the film a koan, a mysterious touchstone for being young and single and discovering your life.
Earlier this year, after a long time in the Hollywood wilderness, Judd appeared at the Sundance Film Festival in Come Early Morning, another naturalistic Southern indie about a woman in search of her life. This character was a decade older, of course, and more damaged; her wounds more self-inflicted. But the character's journey -- and the movie's uncommon patience and naturalism -- mark Come Early Morning as a Ruby in Paradise companion piece, right down to its refusal to tidily wrap up its romantic plot thread and the way its character locates contentment through work.
This connection appears to be purely accidental, according to Come Early Morning's creator, Arkansas-bred, indie-identified actress Joey Lauren Adams (Chasing Amy, Dazed and Confused), who makes her writing and directing debut with the film, which is the opening-night screening at this year's Indie Memphis Film Festival.
Adams, who currently lives in Oxford, Mississippi, says that Come Early Morning wasn't written with Ruby -- or even Judd -- in mind. But it was born out of a frustration with Hollywood that Judd could probably identify with.
"I guess I was sort of frustrated with the roles that were available, not just for me but for women in general," Adams says. "And I realized I wasn't going to change anything by acting. As an actress, there are times when you're doing a film and you're really busy. And then other times I'd wake up and want to work, but there were no scripts to read, no auditions, nothing to do. And that drove me nuts. So I started writing. And rule number one is write what you know, or so I'm told."
Adams set and filmed Come Early Morning around her hometown of North Little Rock and the smaller communities of Scott and Lonoke.
Adams had originally written the film as something to act in herself, but that changed when she decided to direct as well. "I wasn't going to get a Michael Apted to direct it, or a Bruce Beresford," Adams says, citing two of her favorite filmmakers. "The director we were talking with [didn't have much experience] and then the music started to become really important to me, and the place, and I became so terrified about what someone else might turn it into."
The more Adams learned about what goes into directing, the more she realized she didn't know enough to direct and star.
"One of my producers gave [the script] to [Judd's] agent at Sundance the year before," Adams says, "and she loved it. Ashley read it right away. And decided she wanted to do it."
Adams says she saw Ruby in Paradise when it came out but never really had it in mind. Her template, she says, was Tender Mercies, a Beresford drama from the '80s staring Robert Duvall.
"I do see Lucy [Judd's character] as more of a masculine character," Adams says. "She's doing what the guy usually does in the movies -- sleeping with the guy and trying to sneak away in the morning."
Come Early Morning confounds expectations in many ways -- from its refusal to fashion a conventional happy ending to Lucy's potentially redemptive romance to a novel but believable depiction of Southern church culture to the respect it gives to work, with Lucy finding a measure of job satisfaction as a contractor.
Come Early Morning was purchased by indie distributor Roadside Attractions after screening at Sundance and is set for a U.S. theatrical run starting next month.
As for the director's future? "I definitely want to write and direct," says Adams, most recently seen in a supporting role in the Vince Vaughn/Jennifer Aniston comedy The Break-Up. "I'm sort of over L.A., and as an actress I'd have to spend more time there. I love writing and I love that I can do it anywhere."
Adams will be driving from Oxford to attend the screening.
Come Early Morning
Friday, October 13th, 8 p.m.