The Reeler


November 9, 2006

Morning People

Ashley Judd, Joey Lauren Adams and the Southern comfort of Come Early Morning

Allow me to just quickly get this out of the way: There is no mistaking some of the indie-film cliches and conventions threading Come Early Morning, actress Joey Lauren Adams' fine writing/directing debut that opens Friday in New York. One might bristle at the strummy acoustic guitar interludes, cloying metaphors ("Why won't he open the door?" its main character cries outside her unresponsive father's apartment) and meandering exposition (often supplied by conveniently placed ancillary characters), and its ostensibly tender and unobtrusive conclusion trickles into place pretty much out of nowhere. That's the bad news.

The good news is that whatever frustrations Morning impels are fueled by everything that's right about it, most notably Ashley Judd (right) in a stunning, self-effacing turn as Lucy Fowler, an Arkansas woman all but undone by booze, promiscuity and a family stocked with emotional impotents. Adams, who in fact attributes her story to "emotional autobiography" (but insists it stops there), crafts Lucy as a careerist with the qualifications to do everything but be in love; Judd flourishes in the range between each dimension, alight with potential until her glowing eyes spot its limits in the distance -- usually in the form of the local honky-tonk where she picks up her lovers.

And then there's the South, the bearer of such exquisite geo-cultural texture that nevertheless lapses into banality when mishandled and/or misconceived in art. It's a place whose authenticity doesn't suffer fools gladly, or at all, at least in film: Even interpretive gothic like The Night of the Hunter is a safer bet than essential failures like Monster's Ball or garish cartoon legends like Gone With the Wind (can anybody actually sit through that movie today?). The last 10 years of Southern cinema, however, has revealed a relatively high ratio of canonical triumphs to genre misfires, with Sling Blade and The Apostle sharing benchmark status in the mid-'90s before acquiescing to the revisionism of George Washington and Junebug this decade. Come Early Morning, while falling a few rewrites short of narrative masterpiece, exhibits a traditional fidelity to space, character and light (it was shot by the young ace Tim Orr, who broke through with George Washington) that refuses to call attention to itself. Lucy's relationship with the lanky Cal Percell (Jeffrey Donovan) simmers with quiet pulchritude, and elsewhere, in the porch languor and Holy Roller exultations and community dynamics in which even the most conspicuous archetypes retain a complexity that Lucy can't negotiate (her favorite bartender, for one, just threw out the old jukebox despite her pleas to save it), Morning communicates what it knows, and you rarely doubt it knows it.

It didn't hurt that Adams shot in her hometown of North Little Rock, and that both Judd and Orr are native Southerners. Of course, familiarity never guarantees success, nor does it necessarily imply it. "Most of my favorite Southern films have been directed by foreign directors, which I found interesting and spent a lot of time thinking about before I went to direct this," Adams told The Reeler this week, primarily referring to Australian Bruce Beresford's 1982 classic Tender Mercies. "It was really important to me to do an authentic, real, honest portrayal. It's like doing a documentary -- you have to go in unbiased, you know? I had actually talked to John Travolta, because Urban Cowboy is a great movie in that way. But he said they were never commenting on the characters, and I think that's what we tried to do. And I was biased about using Southern actors. I always feel strange when you see something like Cold Mountain, where they don't shoot in America and the actors are foreign. They're amazing, but you know, we didn't have a lot of rehearsal; I didn't have a lot of time to sit down and talk to an Australian actor about what the South is like and work with a dialect coach. We couldn’t afford any of that. We had no rehearsals actually, so there was something in having actors that just got it. Tim was kind of an accident; I watched George Washington when it came out, and I wasn't even aware they were Southern. I was just blown away by how well that film was shot and for how little money. And from that moment, that's who I wanted to shoot the film. And I lucked out and got him."

Ashley Judd sympathized. "I definitely remember the mountain woman in Cold Mountain, and how in fact that was played by -- albeit a very great one -- a British actor," she said. "I know that in my experience, when I read the script the sense of place was very clear. The tone was very present on the first page. The writing, while very simple, expressed a profound understanding of the place, and so I was on board at that point. And not only was there an understanding of what the South historically has been, but what it is now. And that to me is very good writing: In so few words, so much can be expressed."

Judd paused, then laughed. "Which is really not how I talk, which is why I find it so appealing."

Well, whatever it is, that makes two of us.

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