Come Early Morning is the best student film I've seen this year. The camera set-ups are managed well and never draw attention to themselves. The music cues that begin each scene lay it on a little thick, but that's no big deal. The main character is set up quickly and efficiently -- we meet her as she comes storming out of a room at a roadside motel, pushing past a perplexed-looking gentleman standing in the doorway. This cues us that our heroine is the town sperm jar, coming off her latest one-night stand. She will have to be put on a path to mending her slutty ways if the movie is to end on a moderately upbeat note. The small town in which she lives is peopled with appropriately colorful eccentrics, including a church congregation that seems to practice Monkee-worship -- the choir uses tambourines to make a joyful noise and the minister sports a Peter Tork haircut. All of this is good knockabout stuff, but the question arises -- what is Ashley Judd doing in this film?

For a talented actress, Judd has demonstrated great oddity in her choices over the years. She's produced a small library of one-off thrillers like Double Jeopardy and Twisted, often turned up in Southern-fried weepies like Where the Heart Is, and here and there delivered a real knockout performance, such as in 2004's De-Lovely, where she played the long-suffering wife of the insufferable Cole Porter. It's possible that Judd is a victim of Tom Cruise Syndrome -- if you can consistently open a movie, starring roles will be consistently offered to you, which are probably hard to turn down no matter how much you long to unleash the inner thespian. Still, Judd would be well-advised to take on the more challenging projects she's shown herself capable of handling. In Come Early Morning, she's not exactly sleep-walking, but seems perpetually on the verge of boredom. Her character, Lucy, has little to do in the film except pick up strangers in honky tonk bars, sleep with them off-camera, and then regret everything the next day.

Eventually, Lucy stumbles upon a Nice Guy played by Jeffrey Donovan. Nice Guy's hobbies include painting model cars and spearing frogs in a creek-bed, then taking them home for supper, which the film thinks is par for the course for good ol' boys from down South. Lucy is so emotionally closed-off that she seems genuinely perplexed when Nice Guy shows an interest in the half of her above the waist and doesn't treat her like damaged goods. This causes her to lash out and try to sabotage their burgeoning relationship. This could make for a compelling story if the film had any teeth, but it doesn't. Instead it gums its way through a number of contrived set-ups and pulls its punches in the content department, which is murder for an independent film that needs a little sex or violence to lock us into the story and make us forget the dime-store production values. I didn't come away from the film feeling I had witnessed someone who was either a raging alcoholic or a sex-a-holic or particularly self-destructive at all. These things are implied, not spelled out.

One of the film's characters, Lucy's estranged father, is of particular annoyance. He's the Big Secret character who has some unspoken static with his daughter but is so button-lipped on the subject that we have to wait until the third act to get the big revelation. When we finally learn that the reason he is so distant from his child has something to do with the fact that he never got to play guitar in a band with Chet Atkins, I wanted to call up writer-director Joey Lauren Adams and say "Are you kidding me with this?" I'm not sure why Adams was so reluctant to create some big stakes for her first movie, but that's exactly what it needed in order to boost itself up from just watchable to compelling. Adams never swings for the fences with this film, in any capacity. The characters she's created don't exactly want to get out of town or change their lives or change anything about themselves at all. They just want to stop themselves from falling face-first drunk in the parking lot and sleeping with people whose names they can't remember.

Come Early Morning is also heavy on the symbolism, with the heroine lugging around both a stray dog and a giant, cumbersome jukebox that's provided the soundtrack for much of her barroom escapades. The director should have realized that such gimmickry wasn't necessary and trusted that she had a lead actress who could pull off the film without having to telegraph and underline the meaning of each scene. A few scenes of well-crafted dialogue would have done a much better job of bringing us into the picture and a little comedy would have helped as well. The film is quite sour on life in general, which may be part of its strive for indie credibility. It seems to think that everyone in the economically depressed South is a go-nowhere bore who listens to long-dead country-music artists and drinks themselves into oblivion. That said, if you're a big Ashley Judd fan and you want to see her interpretation of a 30-something loser, instead of the crackerjack defense attorneys or pissed-off crime victims she usually plays, then maybe this film is for you.

Also check out Jette's festival review of the film.