With the dawn of each new morning comes the promise of change and new beginnings. For a Southern woman in her late 30s with a dead-end job and a dysfunctional background, the mornings only promise waking up in a stranger's bed and chasing a hangover with crushed pain reliever. The daily struggles of this contemporary tragic figure are the subject of first-time director Joey Lauren Adams' debut feature "Come Early Morning." With an honest and starkly minimalist approach, Adams paints a vivid, often painful portrait of a woman who has nothing to look forward to except the next one-night stand.
Ashley Judd adds spark to her recently dwindling career with her carefully realized portrayal of Lucy Fowler, a lonely woman who spends her days in bars and her nights with whoever will take her home. Her life abounds with loss, emptiness, and dissatisfaction. She makes daily visits to her paternal grandmother (Candyce Hinkle) whose now-deceased husband deserted her. She has lunch with her maternal grandparents (Diane Ladd and Pat Corley) whose marriage is stale and competitive. In the film's most heartbreaking scenes, Lucy makes futile attempts to reach out to her long-estranged father (Scott Wilson), even tagging along with him at his "holy roller" church. But nothing substantial comes of her familial relationships. They are all so wilted from their past mistakes that they have no warmth or love to give Lucy.
Her luck seems to change when nice guy Cal (Jeffrey Donovan) moves into town. He is quickly smitten by her tempestuous behavior, first catching sight of her while she is engaged in a bar brawl with one of her father's former mistresses. Lucy does not immediately accept his advances, apparently because she is so emotionally detached from others that she does not know how to return the affection. Even after sleeping with him, she wakes up early the next morning to sneak out, following her regular morning-after routine. Cal keeps coming back, however, offering her genuine companionship for the first time in her life. But Lucy distrusts their relationship, fearing it will be just as destructive as the marriages she encounters everyday.
Joey Lauren Adams, who also wrote the screenplay, infuses the movie with detailed observations of small-town life and the troubles it brings to women who are not partnered with a man. Told in almost free-form style, the movie lacks conventional plot structure in order to convey the emptiness and redundancy of Lucy's life. During one of her father's church meetings, she is introduced to Matthew 7:7 -- "Ask, and the gift will be yours. Seek, and you will find. Knock, and the door will open to you." She applies this lesson quite literally to her visits to her father, but there is nothing. No hopeful reunion. No dramatic scene of forgiveness. Her father, played with chilling effectiveness by Scott Wilson, remains silent and distant, no matter how many times Lucy tries to bridge the gap between them.
Nothing that Lucy tries ever reaches fruition, and she continually turns back to her nights of drunken abandon to escape. This penchant for willful alienation might take its toll on the audience, as Lucy is not always easy to sympathize with. I do not consider this a flaw, though, because I think that is precisely Adams' desire. Lucy is not the typical Hollywood heroine whose problems magically dissolve at the hint of romance. For Lucy, a lifetime of discontent will not heal easily, and certainly not completely if it heals at all. Her problems are too vast to be covered up by one romance, and this may be tough for more mainstream audiences to take.
The film has been released by Genius Products in an anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen image. Its low-budget roots show in the somewhat murky look of the presentation, with noticeable grain and some occasional dirt. Picture quality is fairly sharp, though at times more so than at others. Black levels are consistent, though the image is rather dark overall. The movie is delivered on a flipper disc that packs the widescreen transfer on side A and an open-matte fullframe version on side B.
A 5.1 Dolby Digital mix is nice, but not utilized as well as it could be. "Come Early Morning" is not at all a noisy or ambient film, and there is little action in the rear speakers. Voices are good, if sometimes hollow. The surround qualities come through most obviously in the church scenes, where the singing of the congregation and Christian rock group are distributed nicely, putting us right into the middle of the service. Aside from those scenes, though, the audio is relatively unremarkable. Optional English and Spanish subtitles are included.
Unfortunately, there are no special features whatsoever included on this disc. I would definitely have liked to have heard from Joey Lauren Adams on her first experience as a director, perhaps in an audio commentary or a short interview. Instead, we have nothing to give us even a glimpse of how the project worked out for her.
Due to its indie roots and refusal to tidy up its heroine's life for us, "Come Early Morning" had a pretty limited theatrical release. Its unconventional nature will no doubt leave some cold, but this is a movie that deserves as much attention as it can get. Judging from the DVD package, it appears that Genius Products is marketing the film as a romantic comedy, but nothing could be farther from the truth. This is a thought-provoking, emotional story that defies genre classification. Ashley Judd is a revelation in the lead role, and it is really she who draws us into this character's life and keeps us there. Hopefully this overlooked film will find its audience on DVD, and the work of two immensely talented women will not go unnoticed.