You know, there was once a time when Judge Kerry Birmingham would spend all night shooting pool in a honky-tonk and having drunk, meaningless sex with anonymous strangers, but last Thursday was a long time ago. People change.
Before you fall in love, you need to love yourself.
Hey kids, remember Ashley Judd? Sure you do; aside from being the most presentable of her family of famous entertainers, she starred in a string of unexceptional, but nonetheless popular, thrillers and romantic comedies throughout the past decade. It's hard to notice them when the movies are indistinguishable from one another—Twisted and Kiss the Girls are as generic for their genre as Someone Like You and Where the Heart Is are for theirs—but on the rare occasion that she actually tries, Judd is capable of being more than the traumatized victim seeking empowerment or the man-crazy single. Come Early Morning represents something of a change for Judd as she plays…a man-crazy single traumatized and seeking empowerment.
Okay—not much of a departure when laid out like that, but Come Early Morning really is uncharted territory for Judd and writer/director Joey Lauren Adams, far away from her roots playing baby-voiced sexpots in movies like Chasing Amy and Big Daddy. Nothing cleanses the palate like a shoestring-budgeted character study with autobiographical elements. The studio system has chewed up and spit out worse talent than these two, and the solace of independent film has rejuvenated more than a few careers. It's up to Judd and Adams to make it a break worth taking.
Facts of the Case
Lucy (Ashley Judd, Bug) spends her days working as a contractor in a rural Arkansas town, and her nights down at the local watering hole getting drunk and sleeping with a parade of anonymous men. Alienated from her emotionally distant father (Scott Wilson, In the Heat of the Night) and cynical about her own romantic prospects and that of her idealistic roommate, Kim (Laura Prepon, That '70s Show), Lucy unexpectedly gets more than she bargained for in Cal (Jeffrey Donovan, Burn Notice). Cal's new in town, and he's determined not to be another one of Lucy's one-night stands. Before she can trust him, however, Lucy must deal with the horrors of family and reconcile her problems once and for all.
Usually the packaging isn't worth mentioning, but here it's worth noting how the film is presented to the viewer versus what the film is actually like. The front cover has an insipid, misleading tagline (see "The Charge," above) laid over a photo of Judd and Donovan dancing, with smiles on their faces, against a gauzy, green pastel backdrop. All signs point towards this being the standard Ashley Judd romantic comedy vehicle.
Aside from being crass marketing, it illustrates exactly what Judd may have been trying to combat by taking on the role of Lucy, far from the gloss of the rest of her filmography. Lucy is abrasive, needy, self-destructive, combative, and prone to starting fights. None of this makes her unlikeable, unsympathetic, or beyond contradiction; Lucy is, in short, a complex character—the sort of thing sorely lacking in most of Judd's other movies. Put into dingy jeans and a worn tank top, and scrubbed free of make-up, Judd is decidedly deglamorized for the role (though she remains the prettiest bar hag you're likely to meet). Judd's commitment goes a long way towards selling Come Early Morning, and it needs it: its vision of the rural American South is equally grungy and uncompromising, tempered by the quiet yearning and occasional catharsis of its characters.
Yes, Come Early Morning is one of THOSE kinds of indie dramas. Though Lucy's tentative romance with Cal provides something resembling a through-line for what passes for the plot, this is the sort of shapeless, meandering character study that will enthrall some viewers and bore the rest. Lucy's insecurity and trauma, borne of a string of romantic disappointments and a family in which the men routinely cheat on or abuse the women in their lives, is gradually laid bare through her relationship with Cal. It's structurally unconventional and offers no easy solutions (and often not even acceptable ones). Fans of this approach to drama will find a lot to like in Lucy's flailing attempts at picking up the pieces of her life, from the tender ministrations of Cal (played with nice restraint by Donovan) to her frustrated attempts to bond with her church-going father .
The elliptical nature of the story will put off some viewers, but there's nonetheless a lot to admire. Adams as a director is somewhat inexplicable; that she actually seems to have an affinity for it, more so. Judd is the only marquee name involved; the rest of the cast is populated by unknowns and character actors. All, it seems, were sprayed down with dirt and sweat before the cameras rolled. Adams coaxes a number of fine performances from her cast, perhaps showing an ability to draw out subtleties that could only be found in another actor. She's clearly learned from her time spent in the indie trenches with the likes of Kevin Smith and James Toback, ekeing production value from the Arkansas locations, giving the movie an authentic and natural backdrop for Lucy's world of run-down honky-tonks and dilapidated convenience stores. (As an Arkansas girl herself, it's tempting to speculate how much of Lucy's ongoing crisis is also Adams', though thinly veiled autobiography is well within the ethos of the genre and the movie itself). The South in general—the working-class South in particular—is rarely portrayed in film, and rarely portrayed as anything beyond parody, so to find it given not only exposure but exposure via sympathetic and complex characters (and lovingly photographed squalor) is a thing to be encouraged.
Adams, as writer, isn't as assured as she is as a director, but is likewise full of potential. To a less forgiving viewer (and reviewer), "structurally unconventional" and "authentic" could easily be read as polite substitutes for "no plot" and "ugly"—both of which would be true. Adams isn't above indulging in clichés, such as the subplot in which Lucy takes in a stray dog, a bit of plotting that hammers home the symbolism none too subtly. Missteps like that notwithstanding, the dialogue rings true and, like life, characters and conflicts are often left dangling. Make no mistake: while full of Southern charm, this is in many respects a grim movie. When Lucy, who goes through a series of small eruptions before one giant, red-faced, tear-streaked meltdown, finally confronts her problems, it's an ugly scene in a movie of ugly scenes. In its own small way, Come Early Morning bucks expectations: frequently uncomfortable and uncompromising, it exposes Lucy's raw heart (um, figuratively) and effectively paints a portrait of people just as horribly screwed up as you or me. Fans of smiling, dancing Ashley Judd should steer clear.
In terms of picture and sound quality, everything is nominal and well within standard DVD expectations concerning sharpness, color, and sound, even factoring in the sliding scale of independent film DVD transfers. Tellingly, there are no bonus features—not even the theatrical trailer, which speaks to the Weinstein Company's open lack of faith in their product.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There are people who will hate this movie. Love it or hate it, I think both sides can agree: Damn, Lucy got issues!
Come Early Morning is not a romance, nor is it a Lifetime Channel original movie, though it has elements of both of those things. What separates it from those things is its aura of discomfort; its raw refusal to settle for easy outcomes and pat resolutions. It's not a perfect drama, and often not even an entertaining one, but it comes loaded with the grit and passion of a cast and crew with something to prove. That goes a long way towards elevating the material from standard indie fare to scrappy, proficient indie fare. Don't let Judd or the shiny, happy cover art fool you: this is a drama about the cumulative trauma of life, love, and family, and it cuts to the core often enough to forgive its occasionally slack pace and the indulgences of an unseasoned writer-director.
After much deliberation: Not Guilty. The Weinstein Company is ordered to have more faith in their product and its presentation.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Studio: Genius Products
Review content copyright © 2007 Kerry Birmingham; Site design and review layout copyright © 2016 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.