Come Early Morning (2006): Writing and Directing Debut of Actress Joey Lauren Adams

Come Early Morning, the tale of a Southern woman’s personal journey toward love and redemption, marks the writing and directing debut of actress Joey Lauren Adams (The Break-Up, Chasing Amy).

An official selection at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, Come Early Morning tells the story of Lucy (Ashley Judd), a hard-working construction supervisor whose personal life has been reduced to a spiral of late-night drinking and one-night stands.

When Lucy meets Cal (Jeffrey Donovan), a newcomer to town, she is finally forced to confront her fears as he challenges her to accept a more meaningful relationship. Unaccustomed to being treated with respect like a lady, Lucy backs away. But gradually, Cal helps her appreciate her own worth. Lucy must decide whether to push Cal away or face the demons that have left her incapable of intimacy and personal growth. She begins a spiritual journey that takes her, and the film, to an entirely unexpected and original place.

A barfly, a slut, and a drunk, Lucy prefers one-night stands to dating. Shes “emotionally closed off, still suffering the price of her parents divorce at a young age. Estranged from her father Lowell (Scott Wilson), she shows up at his new place to announce she’ll be going to church with him on Sunday morning. A quiet, reticent, he doesnt talk much.

Problem is, we have seen this story before, even with Ashley Judd, in the far superior Ruby in Paradise. The yarn of a woman’s quest for personal fulfillment is not new, and it’s told in a routine, predictable mode, with all the expected stops, backslides, and relapses. There are also quite a few false scenes. Hence, for a date, Cal takes Lucy to the lake for frog gigging, a scene that feels like a convenient occasion to show Judd stripping down to her panties.

The film, which draws loosely on Adams own experiences of growing up in the South, should have been–but is not–infused with an insiders knowledge of life in a small town. That said, on-location shooting in Arkansas, and Southern Rock soundtrack, that complements Lucys pick-up and Cals vintage Firebird T-Top, makes the viewing more tolerable than it has the right to be.

After a string of performances in a string of formulaic studio crime thrillers, Judd is back in the indie terrain, but she needs stronger, more original roles. In this movie, she gives a heartfelt but not distinguished performance, perhaps defeated by the writing. She does, however, look right for the part: her weary eyes and cynical conduct project the image of a woman whos been around, perhaps even reaching the end of her rope.

Jeffrey Donovan, a TV actor, also deserves praise for his decent performance as Cal. Scott Wilson, recently seen in Junebug, plays a similar role here as Lucy’s father.

Adams’ work as writer and director leave a lot to be desired. Lucy’s relationship with some of the secondary characters feels like a filler of a slender narrative. Theres “Nana” (Diane Ladd), her grandmother whos stuck in a bad marriage, and Uncle Tim (Tim Blake Nelson) looks the same age as Lucy.

The films various problems would matter much less if the story were more original or compelling. And its hard to celebrate the birth of a new woman director like Adams, who may be talented, whose stale debut draws heavily on regional (Rural South) for a setting and Freudian daughter-father melodrama.

In intent, but only in intent, the filmmaker must have been inspired by the Robert Duvalls Oscar-winning portrait Tender Mercies, the tale of an alcoholic and abusive country singer who embarks on a journey of self-discovery and redemption.