Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Film Review #100: Come Early Morning
Director: Joey Lauren Adams
Cast: Ashley Judd, Jeffrey Donovan, Scott Wilson

If you’re an HBO movie watcher, you can catch Joey Lauren Adams this Sunday as Addie in The Break-Up (the Vince Vaughn/Jennifer Anniston romantic comedy) and remember her from a string of Kevin Smith films, beginning with Mallrats (1995) and then reprising Alyssa Jones from Chasing Amy (1995) through Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (2001) and Clerks: The Lost Scene (2004). Now there’s a chance that Adams – who wrote the country songs she sang in Chasing Amy and laments the lack of good women’s roles – could quit her day job as comedic actress. Nearing forty, Adams has written and directed her first feature, starring Ashley Judd and shot on the outskirts of Adams’ home town, Little Rock.

This is a good deal for them both. Judd portrays Lucy Fowler, whom we meet waking up in a motel room, very hung over, next to a stranger. Unlike other recent films about women who imbibe too much, excellent though they are – Clean with Maggie Cheung and Sherrybaby with Maggie Gyllenhaal spring to mind – this one’s central character is neither an addict who must struggle through protracted recovery nor a tragic mother.

Lucy Fowler has hit thirty, shares a bungalow with an old friend named Kim (Laura Prepon), and drives a lime-green pick-up that’s seen its way around the construction sites she helps her boss Owen (Stacy Keach) manage. She’s sharp at what she does – Owen tells her she’s been running the business for the last four of the nine years she’s worked for him – and during the story she acquires this little business with his blessing. Lucy has a fractured family – her unhappily re-married mother (Diane Ladd), her nursing home-bound grandmother named Doll (Candyce Hinkle), an alcoholic father so shut down he’s practically mute (Scott Wilson), and her Uncle Tim (Tim Blake Nelson), who fills in the gaps for her about her father’s former glory days as guitarist who once played with Chet Atkins and named her for the song “Lucille.” Lucy would like to get closer to her father. In some of the film’s best scenes, she tries, but he can’t do it.

And Lucy spends too much time at The Forge, one of those unfancy strip hangouts selling beer, pool and pizza. One day she buys the juke box of “old songs” that’s being junked – the film is drenched in a gorgeous country soundtrack heavy on songs from composer Alan Brewer – and after she loads it on her truck, meets Cal (Jeffrey Donovan). New in town and a little reticent about why, he’d like an actual date and he wonders when she last kissed someone sober. They try, but they can’t do it.

Sometimes reviewers describe non-blockbusters as “closely observed,” a poppit-bead kind of term that’s stuck in when well-done little movies seem true-to-life and offer colorful detail in place of sweeping drama. Adams has written tight, purposeful scenes and directed her cast to clean, nuanced performances. The notion and value of paying attention to one another is embedded in the story itself. “Are you going somewhere? I see you have your gold shoes on,” says Lucy to her grandmother as soon as she walks in to visit one day. Kim and Lucy talk about getting to know the men they meet – wondering, as Kim says, “what his middle name is and what he looked like as a kid” – and you can see Lucy’s mind working as she asks questions of her life and tries out small, brand new behaviors.

Adams avoids mistaken short-cuts that would lead us through flashier but less satisfying territory. Lucy’s romance with Cal could work out, for example, or she could go with Owen to that newer, bigger company out of town. What happens instead seems truer, even more hopeful. Given that opening motel room moment, this could’ve also been a movie about men being rotten. A couple bad apples here don’t spoil Owen, Uncle Tim or Lucy’s older pool-table buddy Eli (Wally Welch), and along with Lucy, we are finally just deeply sorry for her father.

Previously beset by glamour, serial killers and possibly the most dramatic left eyebrow in film, Ashley Judd gets to act here. The job she does bodes well for her lead as Agnes White in William Friedkin’s just-released screen adaptation of Bug. And I hope Adams is somewhere working on her next script.

Come Early Morning opened last November & went to DVD in late March. This review appears in the 5/10/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a weekly column reviewing recent movies that didn’t screen in Syracuse & older films of enduring worth.