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‘Ruby in Paradise’ (NR)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 06, 1993

Ashley Judd, sister of Wynonna and daughter of Naomi, brings a slow smile and an Appalachian air to her debut in "Ruby in Paradise," a modestly budgeted but richly rewarding look at a Tennessee housewife's search for a better life. A stoic but savvy gal with a little Thelma and a lot of Louise in her, Judd's Ruby Lee Gissing might have stepped out of one of her kinfolk's country songs. But the character's genesis is in the works of such southern gothicists as Flannery O'Connor.

Victor Nunez, who wrote and directed this literate, somewhat uneventful film, is a fan of women writers like O'Connor and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, whose respective works "A Circle in the Fire" and "Gal Young 'Un" he adapted for the screen. Nunez's empathy and affection for women are reflected here in both his fine writing and his obvious respect for his heroine.

Ruby's adventure, largely an internal one, begins as she speeds away from her mountain home in her irate husband's battered coupe. She's headed for freedom and the only paradise she knows, a half-remembered Florida resort where she spent her one and only vacation. Her childhood memories of surf and sand have been replaced by the reality of peewee golf courses, carry-outs and cut-rate motels, but Ruby finds it heavenly.

She has little money and no resume to speak of, but she still considers herself lucky for escaping her old life without getting pregnant or beaten. The possibilities of the "Redneck Riviera," if not limitless, are at least not stifling. "Back home, it was do this 'n' do that. Now it's up to me," is how Ruby herself puts it.

Though it's off-season and the resort is mostly empty, Ruby manages to talk a hard-edged gift shop owner, Mildred (Dorothy Lyman), into hiring her to mind the cash register. Mildred's one caveat: Don't sleep with my boy. Of course, that's just like telling Pandora not to open the box, and before she really gives it much thought, Ruby is involved with Mildred's playboy son (Bentley Mitchum).

It's a situation she regrets "100 percent," but still it sets her to thinking about "the whys of running off and coming here." Ruby befriends another clerk (Allison Dean), takes up with another young man (Todd Field) and begins to rethink her world view. To this end, she frequently writes in her journal.

Nunez fills her head and her journal with thoughtful observations on the nature of morality, men and occasionally the environment. It all sounds politically correct and cosmic, which it is, yet it's leavened mightily with Ruby's common sense and country girl's humor. "Driving on the road once," she says, "I swerved to keep from hitting a rabbit and ran over a skunk." Hey, that's life.

"Ruby in Paradise" is unrated but contains sexual situations and nudity.

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