Director: Joey Lauren Adams
9th Annual Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
“It’s going to sound like the biggest cliché in the world, but there are no good parts for women. Well, a few, and Nicole Kidman gets them.” So said Joey Lauren Adams about her motivation for writing and directing Come Early Morning, a mature and particular look at a woman in her 30s who has a successful career and a dysfunctional emotional life.
Adams’ own career as an actress should have taken off following her breakout performance in Kevin Smith’s 1997 film Chasing Amy. However, already “aging” out of contention at the ripe old age of 30, Adams envisioned herself on The Surreal Life and decided that rather than gripe about it, she’d move in another direction. In the process, she harnessed the power of another underutilized actress, Ashley Judd, to create a real life on screen.
Judd plays Lucy Fowler, a partner in an Arkansas contracting firm whose m.o. with men is to hook up with one at a bar, get drunk, get laid, and vanish early in the morning. The film opens with Lucy after one such tryst, stumbling into her boots, suffering a slap from the man who doesn’t take kindly to catching her making a getaway and insisting to the hotel clerk that the room be placed on her charge card. She catches a cab to the house she shares with her roommate Kim (Laura Prepon). After throwing her panties in the garbage, Lucy catches a little rest before she has to go into work. We see her on a building site with her partner Owen (Stacy Keach) and watch her demonstrate how well she knows her business.
Lucy frequents a tavern called The Forge, where she likes to listen to the traditional country jukebox and play pool with Eli (Wally Welch). One afternoon, a woman comes into the bar and starts baiting Lucy about the fact that she has two fathers. The catcalls escalate into a full-blown fight, and a young man in the bar pulls Lucy off the other woman and drags her outside. His name is Cal (Jeffrey Donovan), and he draws her attention to the nasty cut on her face. She drives off, giving him an interested look.
Lucy has two grandmothers whom she visits regularly. Nana (Diane Ladd) lives with the verbally abusive Ed (Pat Corley), and every visit is fraught with complaints. Doll (Candyce Hinkle) lives in an assisted living complex, and Lucy drives her to the grave of her nasty husband. When Lucy asks her why she still goes, Doll answers, “You got no say over your heart, Lucy. And if you think you do, you’d best not let yours roam too far.” Lucy has been taking this advice all her life, though she hadn’t heard it before from Doll.
When she meets up with Cal again, he asks for her phone number. “Why?” she asks uncomprehendingly. “So I can call you,” he answers. “For a date?” she says in cynical disbelief, then says she’s in the book. It is only at this point that she reluctantly tells him her full name. When they finally do go out, she brings Kim along and resists making small talk. They end the evening as all Lucy’s evenings end, in bed, with Lucy making her early exit the next morning. But she finds ways to pursue him anyway.
Despite Lucy’s same-old same-old routine, she seems on the verge of a change. When she learns from Doll that her distant father Lowell (Scott Wilson) was over to replace her VCR, Lucy finds out from Doll where he is living and that he is attending a new church. Lucy gingerly makes contact with Lowell and asks if she can attend church with him. This she does for several weeks, and we learn that the congregation is a caring one, and the preacher (Ray MacKinnon) doles out some pretty good advice.
Predictably, Lucy’s romance with Cal is almost too painful for her. When they make love, Lucy sober this time, Cal’s gentle stroking of her body in comfort brings Lucy to tears. She needs to find a way to ruin it, to maintain her independence. When her business partner decides to take a job that’s less demanding, she feels momentarily abandoned. She runs to the preacher and wonders why God would be so hard on the little child she was, that she’s tired of knocking and knocking on a door that doesn’t answer. The preacher advises her to stop knocking and just walk in. This she does literally with her alcoholic father, and listens to him play his guitar, his offering and hiding place. Lucy finally seems to realize that everyone has limitations, and that you just have to work with them.
Ashley Judd gives a nuanced, mature performance that feels real at all times. Bravely, by Hollywood standards, she eschews glamour for direct sunlight on a naked face. She finds a number of interesting mannerisms, such as the way she stands away from a door when she knocks, that make this character completely individual. Her supporting cast members give fully fleshed performances, too, even in small roles. Laura Prepon as Kim, for example, sticks to her hopes for a real relationship. “Don’t you ever get tired of waiting by the phone for some joker to call?” Lucy mocks. “Don’t you ever not?” Kim shoots back.
This film doesn’t offer all the answers, and Lucy doesn’t solve all her problems by falling in love and getting the guy. Her father doesn’t suddenly warm up, and her grandparents don’t realize they’ve been selfish. Lucy has emotional problems, but she’s not a child. She understands through trial and error and utter desperation that she has to figure out how to make peace and learn to be happy. We don’t know what life will look like for her when she finds her way, but Lucy gives us hope that she—and we—will get there. l