Come Early Morning

In that plain brown wrapper over there, behind the name-brand stuff, you’ll find “Come Early Morning.” It’s a generic drama that has good performances but no substance. We keep it on the shelf behind “North Country.”

Actress Joey Lauren Adams makes her writing and directing debut with this feature, and she has cast Ashley Judd as the lead, a small-town Arkansas gal named Lucy. Lucy is a barfly, a fighter, a slut and a drunk, and that’s just what’s on her business card. She prefers one-night stands to dating; “emotionally closed off” is what a therapist would call her, and then she would flip the therapist off and possibly sleep with him.

Now, a woman who looks like Ashley Judd and would rather skip the date and get right to the sex could be very, very popular in certain circles, i.e., with every straight man in America. But she is unhappy with her drunken, wanton ways. Estranged from her father Lowell (Scott Wilson), she shows up at his new apartment to announce she’ll be going to church with him on Sunday morning. He doesn’t say much, but he says OK.

Coincidental with this step forward, Lucy meets a man named Cal (Jeffrey Donovan), who treats her like a lady and doesn’t try to jump her bones the minute he meets her. Unaccustomed to such treatment, Lucy backs away. But gradually, Cal helps her appreciate her own worth.

I’d have to re-watch “Double Jeopardy” again, but I think Judd’s performance in “Come Early Morning” is probably the best of her career. Her eyes are weary and cynical, giving Lucy the look of a woman with a past, a woman who drags baggage with her everywhere she goes. Jeffrey Donovan, an under-noticed TV actor, deserves praise for his charming performance as Cal, too, and Scott Wilson — recently re-discovered as the taciturn father in “Junebug” — plays a similar role here as Lucy’s father, also to great effect.

It’s Ms. Adams’ work as writer and director that I take issue with. For one thing, Lucy’s relationship to several other characters is fuzzy and confusing: Is the woman she calls “Nana” (Diane Ladd) supposed to be her grandmother? If so, why is does she look the same age as Lucy’s father and mother (Candyce Hinkle)? And why is Uncle Tim (Tim Blake Nelson) about the same age as Lucy herself? I suppose an uncle the same age as his niece is not unheard of — but there’s no way Tim is the brother of Lucy’s mother or father, not with that 30-year age difference. I know family trees can get knotty down Arkansas way, but throw us a bone here.

More importantly, the film just doesn’t have anything TO it. Its story of a woman’s quest for personal fulfillment is not new, and it’s told in a perfunctory manner, complete with the backslide/relapse at the end of the second act. The performances are admirable all around, but they’re in the service of a film that doesn’t otherwise merit much attention.

C+ (1 hr., 37 min.; R, moderate profanity, scattered F-bombs, some mild sexuality.)