Hyphenate Joey Lauren Adams (musician/actress/writer/director), whom I've loved since she serenaded Eric Stolz' poker game on a ukelele back in Sleep With Me, presented her film Come Early Morning, which I've championed since I caught its premiere at Sundance 2006. Here's what I wrote about the film back then:
Maybe it's the slightly Lifetime TV subject matter of her film, but something about first-time director Joey Lauren Adam's Come Early Morning brings out the inner tabloid writer: Finally, finally, poor Ashley Judd crawls out from under the long, grizzled shadow of Morgan Freeman to shine in the sunlight of (wait for it) Early Morning....
In sooth, because it so fully fleshes out its portrait of a working-class alcoholic woman, Come Early Morning deserves significantly less glibness. And from its opening shots, it's clear that Judd, puffy eyes squinting in too-bright sunlight, mouth twisted in a battle between defiance and self-reproach, finally delivers the versatile, fierce performance she's had in her all along. (Maybe because she is finally free of Morgan Freeman's long, grizzled shadow).
Set in a small Arkansas town where everybody not only knows your name but your drink of choice, Lucy Knowles (Judd) is highly relied upon but not exactly nourished. She lives in a world of aunts and uncles and nanas and drinking buddies; of new and old country tunes blasting from jukeboxes; of quiet nights punctured by breaking beer bottles; of saturday nights spent line-dancing, and of small, well-kept country kitchens. She mediates her grandparents' fierce squabbles, chauffeurs her great-grandmother to her abusive great-grandfather's grave, campaigns unsuccessfully for affection from her stoney-faced drunk of a dad, swigs shots, and beds random men at the local bar. She is also an accomplished contractor and the sort of broad who insists she plans to put the dog she rescued to sleep, even though everyone knows she won't. Like most alcoholics, Lucy is competent in some areas of her life and a train wreck in others, and Adams diligently depicts that full range.
It feels important that although the twin towers of Church and Sin reign supreme in this film, such Southern cliches as salt-of-the-earth characters with cartoony accents do not in this distinctly un-hokey Arkansas community. Where Come Early Morning breaks most ground, though, is in allowing Lucy to evolve without evolving out of her surroundings; the image of a protagonist zooming away against the big sky sinks nearly every movie about small towns but this one. Instead, Lucy pursues the business of coming into her own — starting her own business, separating out her own crap from others' — with her feet planted firmly in Southern soil.
Come Early Morning is rich with good things, even if it lays them on a little thick when it comes to spelling out Why She Suffers. A few less scenes of the nanas' weak-sister wisdom would have been fine, for example. But the old honky-tonk is glorious, as are the finely honed shots of wide-planked porches and starry country nights and unspoken regrets. Together, Judd and Adams have crafted an authentic, clear-sighted film that does their region proud.
And I still feel the same except it's more deftly edited than I remembered. (I assumed it was a different cut, but Joey assured me it was the same one, so I think Sundancennui had just messed up my judgment last time round.)
Afterward, I had the opportunity to talk with Joey along with co-actor Scott Wilson, whose withholding dad contrasts strongly with his true warmth. It must be said that Joey may have made her name portraying chicks for such directors as Richard Linklater and Kevin Smith (most legendarily as the dyke who flipped and then flipped again in Chasing Amy) but she's a broad through and through, with a scratchy, squeaky voice and supercheeky grin that only highlights her fluent intelligence. And, thankfully, she's also an easily interview.
Her impetus for writing the film, she said, was that she was tired of whining about the dearth of decent parts for actresses of a certain age. (Actually, she told a far juicier story that involved two horticultururalists in an LA bar on a Tuesday night, but I'll leave that to your imagination. ) Once she opted to direct the screenplay she'd written, she knew she wouldn't do the project justice if she played Lucy as well, so Ashley Judd "seemed like the natural choice."
When the two met to discuss the part, they realized that they were so fully on the same page that a spoken conversation would've been redundant so they drank cups of tea instead. "Working with Ashley was spiritual," Adams said with none of the self-effacement many both-coasters might've affected. (These days, she's based in Oxford, Mississippi.) Indeed, throughout the conversation as throughout the film, she addressed religion — Christianity, specifically — with a respect reflected in the film. Refreshing, to say the least.
I mentioned that Judd had never looked more beautiful and less glamorous, and Adams nodded. "She showed up with grey streaks in her hair and requested that we keep them, which I was so happy about. She also showed up with the weight, and we didn't talk about it. I was so glad we were on the same page." I noticed at that point many women exchange glances with each other in the audience, and I couldn't help nodding at them. Judd looked as sinewy and lean as most women never do even in their wildest dreams — I never would have thought she'd gained even five pounds had Adams not made that comment. Guess some aspects of Hollywood are harder to banish than others.
Getting backing (an unknown Russian element with an aspiring-actress girlfriend was mentioned) proved easier than achieving distribution, she acknowledged. At that point, one of the few student-aged men in their audience piped up to ask her out for a drink.
Adams handled it like the classy broad that she is. "Technically, I should be offended that you are treating a female director like this, but I would like to know when and where." Put'em in his place and make a bawdy joke in one swell foop: Sadie Thompson herself would've been proud.