Is "Come Early Morning" a parallel universe imagining of what would've become of Ruby Lee Gissing had she stayed stuck in her small Southern town? As the titular twentysomething of Victor Nunez's 1993 "Ruby in Paradise," Ashley Judd went off to Florida to find herself; as thirtysomething Lucy in this Sundance successor--written and directed by "Chasing Amy" muse Joey Lauren Adams--she likewise comes to various realizations.
At first glance, "Come Early Morning" seems a mediocre entry in this familiar genre: Lucy struggles to make contact with an estranged father (Scott Wilson); lives with a friend (Laura Prepon) who parrots the same supportive lines endlessly: "Did you give him your number?" "Did you have fun?"; for fun Lucy drives to the local dive in her green truck and drinks herself into a stupor, goes home with the nearest warm body, and ritualistically throws her underwear into the trash the morning after.
You might at first mistake her unwillingness to get intimately involved with men--outside the one-off fuck--to the usual: past romantic disappointments and accompanying bitterness. But as the film moves on, a slightly more engrossing story of female self-determination reveals itself. You slowly pick up on the preponderance of adult relatives in Lucy's life with failed relationships behind them: a cheating father, a mother (Diane Ladd) coexisting in an agitated second marriage, an abandoned grandmother (Candyce Hinkle)--each of whom deals with the reverberations of excessive alcohol consumption. Adams suggests that Lucy's self-destructive behavior grows out of this history, but then takes it further: Through a highly localized milieu, she infers that Lucy's romantic isolationism may have been taken up in subconscious rebellion against feminine roles specific to Southern culture. This crystallizes in an instant when recent paramour--and possibly more--Cal (Jeffrey Donovan) says at one point, casually expectant, "Would you mind getting me another beer?" In her suddenly tense body language, Lucy shows her desire never to be under another's thumb, a sense solidified by her proud reaction when her mother tells off her husband later in the film, and played out when she ultimately, literally becomes her own boss. Meanwhile, other more prominently placed story strands set up as paths to redemption turn out to be, refreshingly, no more than red herrings.
As with many other actor-turned-directors, Adams focuses on performance rather than the visual capacities of the medium. "Come Early Morning" is neither a cinematic achievement nor is it highly original; but if you look closely, it's less middling and more provocative than it first appears.
[Kristi Mitsuda is a Reverse Shot staff writer and works at New York's Film Forum.]
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