Ashley Judd's first significant film role, as the star of Ruby In Paradise, established her career template: She's come to specialize in playing tough-but-damaged types, capable women with smiles on their faces and hearts hid firmly beneath their sleeves. But she's rarely appeared as raw and vulnerable as she does in Come Early Morning, a low-key, country-inflected drama that does feature a bunch of other actors, but makes them little more than boundary markers for Judd's striking performance.
First seen cramming her panties into her pocket, blowing off the still-friendly stranger she picked up the night before, and exiting a dingy motel at 8 a.m., Judd plays a small-town Arkansas gal who divides her time between the local bar, her job as a construction contractor, and her attempts to make a meaningful connection with her emotionally unavailable father (Scott Wilson). The line between her failure to come to grips with him and her habit for getting drunk, screwing strangers, and running out the door the next morning is drawn with a thick red crayon, and by the time the film begins, the cracks in her coping mechanisms are starting to show. When she meets a genuinely nice, slow-talkin' cowboy type (Jeffrey Donovan) who wants a real relationship instead of a one-night stand, her inability to cope with kindness becomes so clear that even she can't ignore it. Much weeping and screaming, a few minor bar fights, and a lot of Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson songs with telling lyrics follow.
Chasing Amy star Joey Lauren Adams makes a competent, tender writing and directing debut with Come Early Morning, but the film is still entirely in Judd's hands. With Wilson holding himself at a distance that approaches utter absence, and Donovan maintaining a bland, ambling good ol' boy geniality, it falls to Judd to provide virtually all the emotion, though she does get a gentle assist from That '70s Show's Laura Prepon as the housemate who prods her toward self-improvement. The film itself is so immobile that Judd's adoption of a stray dog counts as a major plot development; it's the kind of small-scale, low-key indie drama that puts blockbuster fans to sleep. But viewers with fond memories of Ruby In Paradise—an equally go-nowhere character study—could certainly successfully argue that real-life drama is generally only about as dramatic as this.