Ruby in Paradise (United States, 1993)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

When Ruby Lee Gissing (Ashley Judd, the daughter of country singer Naomi Judd, and younger sister to Wynonna) makes it out of her Tennessee home town "without getting pregnant or beat up," she considers it quite a feat. With all her belongings in her car, she arrives in Panama City, Florida with hardly a dime to her name and little more than childhood memories to go on. Nevertheless, her pluck and determination land her a job in the off-season because Mildred Chambers (Dorothy Lyman), the owner of a souvenir shop, sees something in her. Ms. Chambers has only one rule for her employees: they don't date her son Ricky (Bentley Mitchum). So when Ruby not only goes out with him, but ends up in his bed, her troubles are about to begin.

Male coming-of-age stories are a dime-a-dozen, but the same cannot be said for the female equivalent, especially when the story is told with intelligence and sensitivity. This makes Ruby in Paradise a rare and welcome change of pace. Oddly enough, for something with this much insight, it's a surprise that it was written and directed by a man, Victor Nunez.

The film gives Ruby two men to choose from: the scheming, cheating Ricky, who offers her sex, gifts, and a good time; and the deep-thinking Mike (Todd Field), who offers her companionship and security. Ruby, however, is less concerned about finding a man than finding out who she really is. She came to Panama City to get something that she couldn't get back home.

By Nunez' own admission, most movies present women as either objects to be "bought or [those that] get to be worshipped as perfect things that a man must work to become worthy of." Such typical Hollywood treatment was not for the director of 1979's Gal Young 'Un and 1985's adaptation of John D. MacDonald's A Flash of Green. He wanted Ruby to be something different and more substantial in a movie about "soul work."

Nothing of a monumental nature happens in Ruby in Paradise, but the depth of the character study, coupled with Nunez's talent for recognizing small details, makes for a surprisingly compelling motion picture. This story is so real that it's like watching the life of someone you lost touch with after high school.

Ashley Judd's performance is worth more words than I have space for. Her grasp of Ruby is such that every nuance of the character is brought out, and the subtlety with which certain emotions are brought to the fore demands appreciation from a viewer. Judd repeatedly outacts and outshines her co-stars. There isn't a moment in this movie when Judd's Ruby is upstaged, and she's in every scene.

Ruby Lee Gissing is so much like the heroines of the Jane Austen books she reads that even she recognizes the similarities. The toughness, intelligence, and resiliency are all there, and with the deft hand of Nunez replacing that of Austen, this makes Ruby in Paradise a surprisingly fresh and engrossing little film.

Ruby in Paradise (United States, 1993)

Director: Victor Nunez
Cast: Ashley Judd, Todd Field, Bentley Mitchum, Allison Dean, Dorothy Lyman
Screenplay: Victor Nunez
U.S. Distributor: October Films
Run Time: 1:55
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Sexual Content, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1