Strange and Fantastic Tales of the 20th Century is a look back at the weirdest, most memorable, and most off center movies of the 20th century. From head turning horror to oddball science fiction this column examines the films that will leave a lasting impression for centuries to come.
Victor Nunez’s Ruby in Paradise premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 1993. Ruby Lee Gissing is a young woman from Tennessee who drives to Florida in the hopes of starting life over in a new place. Ruby Lee is not the wide-eyed dreamer typically seen in films where a young person sets out to embark on a life altering adventure. Curious and determined, Ruby Lee approaches her new experiences with the caution and objectivity reserved for scientific observation.
This approach makes her interesting and empathetic to the audience as we see her navigate the highs and lows that come with seeking out freedom. This week’s strange and fantastic tale features Ashley Judd in her first starring role as Ruby in Paradise.
Ruby in Paradise is distinctive in many ways. Victor Nunez’s writing and directing is intimate and invites audiences to really get to know Ruby. The film’s look is often grainy giving the film a bit of an unpolished look that is complementary to its characters. Ruby is imperfect, she is a young woman trying to figure things out in the world.
The depth of Ruby’s personality is revealed by her journal entries that are uninhibited by any shame or remorse. Ruby is self aware and is interested in learning about herself and never shies away from putting down the truth. When the boss’s son comes on to her at work, she records it in her notebook. She wonders why she didn’t just tell him she had a boyfriend. She confesses that it might be because she didn’t want to mark herself as someone’s property.
The film is also very quiet. There is very little ambient noise which amplifies the sound of Ruby’s thoughts and allows to focus on the interactions around her. Judd’s performance gives a sweetness and vulnerability to a character who is also tough and reserved.
One of the main elements that makes Ruby in Paradise such a unique film is the nuanced manner in which Nunez portrays women. The women in this film are all from different backgrounds and have different aspirations. The two main women in Ruby’s life are Rochelle (Allison Dean) and Mildred Chambers (Dorothy Lyman).
Ruby meets Rochelle when they are working for Mildred at a tourist boutique on the beach. Rochelle is a young Black woman set on graduating from college. She works at the shop to pay for her education. We learn right away that Rochelle is ambitious and cares about her education and her boyfriend. She is also kind and looks out for Ruby.
Ruby has a less pleasant meeting with her boss Mildred Chambers. Mrs. Chambers owns her business and has to contend with being a business woman in a man’s world while dealing with her terribly entitled son Ricky, played by Mitchum Bentley.
Mrs. Chambers warns Ruby to stay away from her son, which seems presumptuous at first, but it is later learned that the rule is probably in place for Ruby’s safety. Mrs. Chambers warms up to Ruby and admires her work ethic. They form a bond, which proves to be stronger than the mother/son connection. Ricky tries to rape Ruby and when he is unsuccessful, he fires her. In a surprising turn, Mrs. Chambers looks out for Ruby.
Ruby also meets two other women when she works at a factory. She meets Persefina and Wanda, two working class women who happily take Ruby under their wing as she adjusts to a new position. The theme of women supporting women runs throughout the film and these are the relationships that get the most emphasis.
Ruby does not set out to find love, but she does have a relationship with a thoughtful man named Mike. Ruby does not really elaborate on her upbringing, but it is clear she has been exposed to women who have had some hardship because they relied on men to take care of them.
Mike introduces her to Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, a novel about a young girl so caught up in Gothic novels her imagination gets the better of her. The novel’s protagonist is an interesting foil to Ruby who keeps herself planted in reality.
This Sundance winner will be rereleased in HD restoration through Quiver Distribution on February 16th. Watch this film with your favorite ladies for Galentine’s Day or wear some puka shells and check it out on your own, either way, you will be invested in Ruby in Paradise.
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