Ashley Judd began her film career in Victor Nunez’s “Ruby in Paradise” (1993), a modest, poignant and piercingly authentic character study of a young woman trying to break from a troubled past in Tennessee and start a new life in Florida. Her performance was arresting, and has served to remind us over the intervening lean years, when she’s played a succession of action heroines usually being stalked by some maniac and protected by the likes of Morgan Freeman in junky Hollywood thrillers, that she’s actually a fine actress as well as a strong and beautiful woman. Now “Come Early Morning,” another little independent movie, this time written and directed by actress Joey Lauren Adams, affords her the opportunity to prove it once more.

Like “Ruby,” this film is about a young woman struggling to make a life for herself. But in this case the setting is small-town Arkansas, and Lucy (Judd) hasn’t left home, she’s simply psychologically trapped by her family experiences–a lack of affection from her distant father (Scott Wilson) and examples of female submissiveness from her relatives. As a result, despite having a good job as associate to a local contractor (Stacy Keach), she can’t make an emotional commitment in a relationship. Instead she spends her nights getting drunk at the local bar and going off with any man who’ll have her–always leaving before he wakes up in the morning. She can’t break the self-destructive pattern even after she meets nice-guy Cal (Jeffrey Donovan).

The dramatic arc of “Come Early Morning” is simple but at the same time realistic; it shows Lucy evolving toward a change in her life, but there’s no epiphany, no convenient turning-point, and in the end everything does not come up roses for her. The ending, which is gently affecting but hardly triumphant, and true to the various characters, may be too low-key for some viewers (as, indeed, the entire film may be), but like the picture as a whole it seems genuine and right. Adams’ script is at once poetic and unforced, and her direction follows suit. And the picture is blessed with a fine cast, starting with Judd–both ferocious and touching–and continuing through the resolutely uncommunicative Wilson (again, as in “Junebug,” just right), veteran Keach in uncharacteristically likable mode, the pleasantly aw-shucks Donovan, and Tim Blake Nelson, in a small role as Lucy’s uncle. Diane Ladd also has a few memorable moments. Technically the film is small-scaled and modest, but the locations and Tim Orr’s photography add to the authentic feel.

“Come Early Morning” is subdued and deliberate, but also sensitive and quietly moving. And it gives Judd a chance to shine as a real actress again.