Remember the Ashley Judd of Ruby In Paradise? The talented and beautiful actress who seemed on her way to a critically acclaimed career, then decided to star in a series of junky detective dramas which all seemed to co-star Morgan Freeman?

Well, the early Ashley Judd is back with a vengeance, giving a scorching, heartfelt performance as a young woman looking for love and security in all the wrong places in writer-director Joey Lauren Adams' self-assured feature debut.

Judd stars as Lucille Fowler, a ravaged-looking beauty in her 30s who's estranged from her taciturn father (Scott Wilson) and picks up men in bars for anonymous, drunken sex. One day Lucy meets Cal Percell (Jeffrey Donovan), a newcomer to town working in his uncle's roofing business. Cal is a laid-back kind of guy who likes to recondition cars, cook frog's legs and hang out at the local bar. He's immediately attracted to Lucy, but when they have sex on their first date, she reverts to an old pattern--waking up before her bed partner, and trying to sneak away before the sun comes up.

From here on in, things get pretty bumpy for Lucy and Cal, but the fact is, she's leading an extremely bumpy life. An attempt to bond with her dad by attending the same church goes for naught, and even though she realizes her willfulness and deep insecurities are ruining any chance she might have for a real relationship, Lucy can't help but drive Cal away from her.

Come Early Morning plays like an indie film that could have been made 20 years ago. It's small, episodic, and filled with quiet moments. (Adams says her template for the picture was Tender Mercies.) But that's all to the good. What Come Early Morning does is create an utterly convincing central character, and surround her with a milieu and backstory that is sincere and convincing.

Even better, some of those tiny moments have a cumulative power that is quite compelling. Probably the best of the lot is a bedroom scene involving Cal and Lucy. It's their second time together, and she just wants to get it on, but Cal wants to take it slow. So he begins gently stroking her arms, face, shoulders and legs. You can tell from the emotions crossing her face--bewilderment, joy, surprise, embarrassment, pleasure--that no one has ever done this to Lucy before. (Previous to this, Cal had asked her if she'd ever kissed anyone when she wasn't drunk.) It's a wonderfully sensitive scene, one only a woman could have directed.

There are more like this, small pieces of time that show Joey Lauren Adams to be a sensitive observer of the human condition (or at least the humanity that exists in the tiny corner of Arkansas where she grew up). Coupled with Judd's ferociously sexy and anguished performance, this makes Come Early Morning one of those "little" films that deserves a big audience.