Quiver had already announced it was re-issuing Ashley Judd’s breakout film, “Ruby in Paradise,” long before she had a near-disastrous accident in the Congo that put her in the news.
Thankfully we can dive back into “Ruby” not as a funereal tribute, but just as an exercise in how a “Star was Born,” thanks to an indie cinema icon and a role that showed she was much more than the Judd who doesn’t sing.
Yes, her Momma and sister had made the surname famous before Florida filmmaker Victor Nunez cast her in his reflective, feminist run-off-to-a-beach-town-to-find-myself melodrama. But the least-famous Judd made a dazzling impression in a rare, quiet, female-centered story from the glory days of American Independent Cinema — the early ’90s.
Set in Panama City Beach, it’s about a Manning, Tennessee 20something who runs off with her boyfriend’s or her daddy’s 1970 Malibu (That’s unclear.), getting out of town “before I got pregnant or beat up,” she declares as a point of honor.
“Ruby” follows her on a job hunt, finally landing off-season work at one of the scores of beachside tourist tchotchke shops, Chambers’ Beach Emporium.
The boss (soap opera veteran Dorothy Lyman, who got a career boost from “Ruby” too) is kind enough to give her work when she’s laid off most of her staff for the winter. But she’s got “one rule” for all her employees.
“Don’t date my son.”
Rochelle (Allison Dean), an employee headed back to school, seconds this warning.
But when “hunk in the trunk” Ricky (Bentley Mitchum) shows up, bats his eyes and comes on to her like he’s entitled to her attention, Ricky’s suggestion is the one Ruby listens to.
“Might as well get it over with.”
Ruby muses about her choices, her life and her future in a journal she starts keeping in the biker-friendly trailer park she moves into. This is the filmmaker’s (a longtime Fla. State film professor) homage to Jane Austen’s “Northanger Abbey,” which he has cited as his inspiration.
She came to Panama City because this corner of the Fla. coast — which Floridians call “Florabama” both for its geography and redneckery — was the destination of “the one vacation I remember” as a child when she was 10.
The film follows the repercussions of her affair with Ricky, and the attraction she feels to a plant nursery clerk (Todd Field, who got a nice career bounce out of “Ruby,” and then became a famous director), even if he’s a tad pretentious.
“It’s been a long time since one kiss made my lips hum,” she narrates for her journal.
“Ruby” has an ambling “slow cinema” quality to it long before that term was ever coined. Not a whole lot happens, but what does is parked firmly in one woman’s reality. She job hunts, takes tougher work at a local laundry, but never seems to develop a life plan for herself.
The voice-over narration of her journal entries can feel disconnected from Ruby’s day to day life.
“Wonder if I’ll ever feel just what I am?”
That’s a writerly indulgence of the screenwriter-director.
And with Nunez as my witness, I don’t remember the strip club scene, a prurient staple of 10,000 generic films a lot less interesting than “Ruby in Paradise.”
Judd went on to sparkling career of mostly thrillers (“Heat,””A Time to Kill,””Kiss the Girls”) and more recently TV (“Berlin Station”) and married a famous race car driver.
Nunez’s Florida-centric indie career peaked with “Ulee’s Gold,” which resurrected Peter Fonda and made Florabama Tupelo honey a fascinating backdrop for a seriously conventional thriller.
But for film history buffs, “Ruby in Paradise” is the one most fondly-remembered. It is indie cinema as regional cinema, a post-“sex, lies and videotape” declaration of independence from Hollywood that pointed the way for any filmmaker who didn’t want to travel West and “take meetings” and “notes” all day to get a movie made.
And for generations of actors, Judd’s gamble — find a smart project with a plum role and a filmmaker you believe in — became a model worth emulating and a path to success that has proved itself time and again in the decades since.
MPA Rating: R for some sexuality and language
Cast: Ashley Judd, Todd Field, Allison Dean, Dorothy Lyman and Bentley Mitchum
Credits: Scripted and directed by Victor Nunez, loosely based on Jane Austen’s “Northanger Abbey.” A Quiver re-release.
Running time: 1:56