Ruby in Paradise (1993): Ashley Judd Shines in Victor Nunez’s Regional Drama

After years of meetings, long shots and near misses, trying to pitch projects to various producers, Victor Nunez was ready to quit filmmaking altogether. But he decided to hang on–to affirm, as he said, the “micro-budget level” of production.

The result was the inspirational Ruby in Paradise (1993), his best film to date. Nunez had only to look 90 miles to the West of his Tallahassee home to find the setting. “I grew up vacationing in Panama City Beach,” Nunez said, “the beach is a working families resort fast being transformed into the condo-lined coast of the rest of Florida. It still has a wonderful mix, however–Fort Lauderdale and Alabama in the same room.”

Like the locale, the main character is unusual by Hollywood standards. American films have rarely centered on working-class women without pandering or condescending to them. It’s even rarer for male directors to paint insightful psychological portraits of female protagonists. But Nunez gets inside his heroine’s psyche with the vision and nuance of a richly dense novel. Few male directors would base a whole film on a woman’s inner odyssey. In Ruby in Paradise, Nunez has effectively accomplished that with both simplicity and eloquence.

Nunez has adapted the works of Southern women writers before. His 1977 short, “A Circle in the Fire,” was based on Flannery O’Connor’s story, and Gal Young Un was an adaptation of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. He continued his exploration of women in his original script for Ruby in Paradise, which revolves around an ordinary woman who becomes extraordinary.

Ruby Lee Gissing (Ashley Judd), just past high school graduation, leaves Tennessee for a better life in Panama City, “the redneck Riviera.” But she faces a number of obstacles in realizing her dream: She arrives in the resort town at the end of the touristic season, which enables her to find an apartment but no work.

Nonetheless, plucky and resourceful, she lands a job as a sales clerk at a gift store. A free spirit, but one with standards and morals, Ruby’s native intelligence serves her well. Despite some melodrama surrounding the sexual advances of her boss’s loathsome son (Bentley Mitchum), the narrative is low-key. A realistic update on Ginger Rodgers’ working heroine in Kitty Foyle (1940), Ruby in Paradise avoids the fairy-tale optimism of Mike Nichols’ fantasy-fable, Working Girl (1988), starring Melanie Griffith.

The nominal plot is less important than its observation of how Ruby deals with life’s inevitable frustrations. Much of the film relies upon Ruby’s struggle to regain inner tranquility. The tacky landscape, the backdrop to Ruby’s self-discovery gives the film poignancy. Nunez never imposes any ideological or moral positions on his subtly observed tale of a young woman’s passage into adulthood.

Through his subtle mise-en-scene, which relies on voice-over narration as Ruby makes entries in her journal, Nunez captures the workings of her inner soul, the gaining of consciousness–issues easier to handle in literature than in film. Nunez places Ruby under a magnifying glass, though his camera is not oppressive. As in Todd Haynes’ Safe, there are no lingering close-ups as would be the norm of more typical Hollywood women’s movies.

A story of “soul work” (to use Nunez’ words), Ruby in Paradise finds the universal meaning in a most particular existence. With a touch of female bonding, a new friend tells Ruby: “the important thing is to learn how to survive with your soul intact.” Ruby attempts to reach a calm, stable point in her life before making any decisions, which explains her rejection of Mike McCaslin (Todd Field), a sensitive nursery employee who introduces her to Jane Austen and Emily Dickinson.