Come Early Morning
2006Director: Joey Lauren Adams
Cast: Jeffrey Donovan, Ashley Judd, Laura Prepon
s the star of Come Early Morning, Ashley Judd makes quite a peculiar career loop. Puffier around the eyes and slightly wider at the thighs, Judd gives an immediate impression of utter exhaustion, and yet there’s a simultaneous relaxation on display. It’s as if she has just arrived back from Hollywood, after years of puppet-dancing in woman-in-peril-turned-vigilante thrillers (Kiss the Girls, Double Jeopardy, High Crimes, Twisted), utterly relieved to play a character that actually resembles a real human being.
The actress Joey Lauren Adams (the raspy-voiced heartbreaker in Chasing Amy) wrote and directed this Arkansas-set film, which played at Sundance in early 2006 and in limited release last fall. A slight tale of southern ennui, Morning concerns the adrift thirty-something Lucy Fowler (Judd), who spends her days as a contractor and her nights as a drunken bar floozy. Lucy’s damaged. Lucy doesn’t let men get close. The audience watches her put on or take off her pants at least a dozen times, as she sneaks out from various motel rooms and one-night-stands’ pull-out couches. Still, Judd imbues the character with enough fragility to convince us that Lucy really is as mercurial and scarred as she advertises to any man trying to get close. In fact, Judd sporadically taps into such a rawness and lost-soul longing that she might even remind enthusiasts of Ruby in Paradise and Normal Life why she ballooned into such a big star in the first place.
Unfortunately, the movie surrounding her seems interested in little else than basking in its leading lady’s newfound de-glamorization. Adams effectively fills the landscape with enough dog barks, cricket chirps, empty beer bottles, evangelicals, smoky bars, and down-home platitudes to create a genuine southern haze. But her dialogue, intended to carry a minimalist heft and accentuated by composer Alan Brewer’s guitar twangs, too frequently stalls. Too many exchanges either get bogged down in heavy-handed choruses reemphasizing Lucy’s remoteness (her friend, Kim, keeps asking her what she has against “getting to know these guys a little better”) or awkward changes in temperament (Lucy screams “I drive a truck, bitch!” after an acquaintance makes a crack about her car). In nearly each scene, she also fields the same question from different characters about what she’s going to do with the jukebox of old songs (doubling as convenient metaphor) she recently acquired.
Of course some of the dialogue’s stilted nature can be chalked up to Lucy’s trouble expressing herself. Soon, however, scene after scene depicts her attempts to confess something to someone until, having failed, she moves onto another person. Indeed, the film is content to operate as a round-robin of confessionals for Lucy as she visits, among others, her grieving mother, her boss, her uncle Tim, her bar buddy Eli, and her laconic father (played by Scott Wilson with the same brand of affecting, quiet despair he brought so notably to 2005’s far superior Junebug). In the end, Lucy cannot open up, which the audience knows not only because she says so to all of the aforementioned characters but also because she does not say much else to them.
Meanwhile, her latest fling, a cardboard car-repairman named Cal (Jeffrey Donovan), tries over and again to get her to let her guard down. Their interactions, which should have elevated the thematic yearning into a literal relationship in which the audience could invest themselves, simply play as awkward since Cal proves quite the dud. He invites her to paint his miniature car models and takes her hunting for frogs, but he amounts to nothing more than yet another foil, an excuse for her to explain to him (and the audience) why she should be lovable despite all her unlovable repression. Unlike her other drunken suitors, at least Cal recognizes that she’s a sloppy drunk with some psychological issues which clearly need to be explored, but Lucy’s mutual cognizance of her instability remains the only thing they have in common. Why exactly he wants to save her is a mystery, and why she wants to impress him by wading around in her underwear stabbing swamp frogs is an even bigger one.
To her credit, Adams hardly overreaches in this, only her first feature. Come Only Morning is a small movie about small people striving to be about nothing more than the way locals talk, drink, screw, and occasionally flicker with hope through the long Arkansas nights. Pockets of true poignancy occasionally emerge, such as when Lucy breaks down in her truck after Cal refuses to listen to her (he’s too busy washing his car, with whom he also seems to share a romantic connection) or when she attempts to have a final conversation with her father, who can only return her request with a lullaby on the guitar. Adams may very well have a fully-realized film in her yet, and Judd, for the first time since her first appearance onscreen, shows remarkable signs of being able to hold together a movie again. Here’s hoping they keep taking their respective careers in this direction; think of Morning as an early-day rehearsal.
Come Early Morning is now available on DVD.
By: Mike D’Alessandro
Published on: 2007-05-30