In Come Early Morning, a low-key Southern drama, Ashley Judd gives a captivating and layered performance as the boozy, promiscuous and emotionally wounded Lucy Fowler. Our introduction to her is appropriately stark; she wakes up in a seedy motel room with a virtual stranger beside her in bed. Lucy quickly slips on her tank top and jeans. She's hungover, a bit confused and very pissed -- at the nameless guy still sleeping, the world, herself. You know the drunken one-night-stand is a scenario that this woman has repeated all too often.
Lucy works as a building contractor in small-town Arkansas, specializing in foundations -- but her own foundation is shaky, at best. Lucy seems to be following in the footsteps of her taciturn, sad-eyed father (Scott Wilson), a gifted honky-tonk guitarist whose confidence came from the bottom of a bottle. Lucy has weighed herself down with the emotional baggage of her father's transgressions – his alcoholism, his womanizing -- that she is unwilling to discard.
So when Lucy meets Cal Percell (Jeffrey Donovan), a nice, unassuming guy, she is torn between being smitten and her impulse toward self-sabotage. They sleep together early on, but the challenge for Lucy is to allow a level of intimacy when she is sober the following morning. Cal asks her about the last time she ever kissed someone while sober; Lucy is stumped by the question.
The movie is written and directed by Joey Lauren Adams, an actress best-known as the baby-voiced Alyssa of Chasing Amy. Here she proves to be a filmmaker of considerable deftness. Her writing is smart and mature, her direction naturalistic. The movie captures the working-class environs of small-town Arkansas -- its convenience stores, its roadside bars -- without patronizing or caricaturing its inhabitants. They feel authentic.
And if the narrative seams are sometimes too visible in what is essentially a conventional story structure, Come Early Morning still manages to gently subvert audience expectations. Lucy is helped along by small kindnesses from people you expect will do their worst, while he film wisely avoids seemingly obligatory knock-down, drag-out confrontations.
Adams also gives us a refreshing take on the character-driven film. Lucy's psychological scars manifest themselves in boozing and promiscuity, but she is defined by much more. Come Early Morning provides a window to Lucy's professional life as well as showing her to be devoted to her family, as she routinely visits her paternal grandmother (Candyce Hinkle) and maternal grandparents (Diane Ladd and Pat Corley).
Judd gives one of her best performances in years, but Adams elicits excellent performances from a solid cast. Deserving special mention are Donovan, Wilson (after Junebug, another incommunicative father) and Laura Prepon (from That '70s Show) as Lucy's roommate.
The anamorphic widescreen presentation does justice to Tom Orr's understated, no-frills cinematography capturing the dusty beauty of Arkansas. The DVD preserves the film's 1.85:1 aspect ratio.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix doesn't have much room to show off, but Adams' smart dialogue is clearly audible with no drop-off or distortion. Subtitles are available in English and Spanish.
None. Nada. Zilch. A director's commentary would've been nice, but alas, it was not meant to be.
Come Early Morning is a solid, insightful character study buoyed by good performances and modest, but compelling, storytelling. Hopefully it is the beginning of more from novice director-writer Joey Lauren Adams. Indie fans should definitely check the film out.