Whether by choice or the whims of the industry, Victor Nunez takes his time between movies. His filmography is sparse, comprising three shorts and eight feature films in 53 years - you could say he out-Mallicks Terrence Mallick. He lives in Florida, away from the power centers of Hollywood and New York. He may be one of the most distinctive artists of the independent film movement before it became trendy. He is allergic to self-promotion and defies the mold of the star indie director. Nunez is the perfect opposite to the ubiquitous motor-mouthed wonder kids like Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith. In the early 90s, when Miramax was hard-selling the revolution, Nuñez self-financed "Ruby in Paradise," his third movie, thanks to a family inheritance. He shot in 16mm and handled the camera himself. Can one person be more independent than that? His previous film was nine years in the past.
The American Cinematheque in Los Angeles, California, recently presented a retrospective of his work, including his latest movie. “Rachel Hendrix” comes sixteen years after “Spoken Word” (2009). Do you notice a pattern there? Nunez’s slow pace poses an annoying situation for the viewer. His movies are so rich you want more of them sooner. One per year would be awesome. Then again, they are so lived-in that you know it takes a lot of time and care to create these beautiful, perceptive, slice-of-life dramas. No wonder they are favorites in film festivals everywhere.
A life less ordinary: Judd turns into a star before your own eyes in "Ruby in Paradise" / Photo courtesy of Quiver Distribution.
The caliber of acting talent involved in his movies is staggering. J-Smith Cameron became a fan favorite for her stellar supporting work as ruthless executive Jerry in HBO’s “Succession.” She debuted in Nunez’s first movie, “Gal Young Un” (1979). Ed Harris was in the early uptick of his career when he played the lead in “A Flash of Green” (1984). Nunez also gave Peter Fonda a crepuscular, masterful role in "Ulee's Gold" (1997). It will go down in history as one of the worst crimes of the Academy that Jack Nicholson’s mannered turn in “As Good as It Gets” (James L. Brooks, 1997) took the Oscar away from Fonda as a stoic veteran taking care of his junkie son’s family. “Justified”’s Timothy Olyphant played a tense pas-a-deux with Josh Brolin in “Coastlines” (2002). His next-to-last work is “Spoken Word,” a family drama deeply rooted in the Latino community of the southwest.
Popflick is happy to spread the Nunez gospel by adding "Ruby in Paradise" (1993) to our streaming library. Ashley Judd plays the title character. Ruby is a young woman from Tennessee, running away from an abusive relationship. One good day, she hops in her battered car and heads out to Florida to make a good life for herself. The paradise in question is Panama City, an off-season vacation town. Ruby finds a job at a souvenir store owned by Mrs. Chambers (Dorothy Lyman) and fends off the romantic advances of her son, spoiled brat Ricky (Bentley Mitchum). Self-styled intellectual Mike (Todd Field) works at a plant nursery and seems like better boyfriend material. She befriends coworker Rochelle (Allison Dean) and offers kindness to neighbor Debrah Ann (Betsy Douds). Unlike Ruby, she can't find the strength to run away from a violent home.
Girlboss mentor: Mrs Chambers (Dorothy Lyman) hints at the future in "Ruby in Paradise" / Photo courtesy of Quiver Distribution.
You can see the potential for overblown dramatics in the synopsis, but Nunez is more interested in the characters' interior life and the texture of day-to-day life. Ruby's backstory of domestic abuse is conveyed with a single shot of a young man coming out of the house in a huff, shirtless and barefoot, trying to put on a boot to run after her car. We don't see the previous fight or her leaving the house and jumping in the car. The camera only shows us his sad, pathetic image as it recedes in the horizon - and the past. He is left behind. Later, in a brief conversation with Mike, she hints at the pressures of growing up in a conservative, religious family but gives no further details. They are not necessary.
We are privy to Ruby’s thoughts as she writes them down in her journal. It could have been an insufferable narrative device. Still, Nunez and Judd make magic together, conjuring a young woman as she finds her way to adulthood using words, opening new ways of being with her ideas and feelings. One can see why this movie catapulted Judd to stardom. It was her second movie, after a small part in the Christian Slater vehicle “Kuffs” (Bruce A. Evans, 1992), and her first starring role. She took the Best Actress Independent Spirit award - the sole win out of six nominations. A few years later, she gave a standout performance in the overpopulated crime drama “Heat” (Michael Mann, 1995), stealing scenes right and left from a cast that included Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro at their finest. It was somewhat underwhelming how the best Hollywood could do for her after that was to offer to headline popular but forgettable thrillers like “Kiss the Girls” (Gary Fleder, 1997) and “Double Jeopardy” (Bruce Beresford, 1999).
Baby Todd Field is besotted with Judd in "Ruby in Paradise. We understand, Todd. / Photo courtesy of Quiver Distribution.
As Ruby, Judd makes a spectacle of simple human existence. You can’t take your eyes off her, not because of her beauty, but for how alive she seems in the moment and the space she moves in. You feel like you are observing a friend. It’s a richly physical performance, but it also works as an exemplary vocal role. We hear her diary musings as a running commentary on day-to-day life and growing up. Ruby can go from naive to insightful in the space of a sentence, but it never feels like the filmmaker and the actor feel superior to her. This is humanistic cinema at its best.
The balance between compassion and knowingness extends to every character, even when we contemplate people at their worst. Consider the romantic subplot. Ricky and Mike are opposites. A lesser movie would have tipped the scales in favor of one - the better-looking one, of course -but “Ruby in Paradise” renounces defining the protagonist through her connection with a man. She is not looking for personal realization through marriage but through the conscious construction of the self.
Grandpa would be proud: Bentley Mitchum is the perfect jerk in "Ruby in Paradise" / Photo courtesy of Quiver Distribution.
Ricky is the closest thing we get to a villain. He resorts to violence to satisfy his desires. He is the Panama City version of an entitled, toxic male who sees hitting on the female store workers as his prerogative. Bentley Mitchum plays him with a striking combination of weakness and brutishness - wonder no more, he is a grandson of Robert Mitchum.
For all of Ricky's faults, it does not mean that Mike is a prince. In a carefully layered performance, Todd Field is a dreamy boyfriend who can't quite hide his superiority complex. He can be tender and protective one moment and insufferably smarmy the next. At his best, he puts books by Jane Austen and Emily Dickinson in Ruby's hands, cooks for her, and offers her to move in with him during a rough patch. But it's a trap. There is an undertow of condescension that manifests enough times, like a red flag Ruby can't ignore. He might love her, but he has a pathological need to feel above her - and the rest of the world -. He ends up as her most formidable foe, and the arc of their relationship drives the movie's resolution. Ruby strives for personal realization on her terms. Debra Ann is always outside the frame as a cautionary tale reminding Ruby what happens when a woman lets a man define her life.
Debrah Ann (Betsy Douds) is a walking cautionary tale when it comes to fashion and life choices in "Ruby in Paradise" / Photo courtesy of Quiver Distribution.
"Ruby in Paradise" works as a character study and a critique of commercial cinema's treatment of women. Strangely, the movie is in dialogue with Greta Gerwig's bubbly blockbuster "Barbie" (2023). The audience who cheered at America Ferrera's climatic monologue should take notice. This substance is anticipated in Ruby's climatic words of wisdom, putting Mike in his place after he dismisses her dedication to a retail job - he is a performative anticapitalist -. "For a while, at least, that just gotta be enough," says Ruby with disarming conviction. Forget finding a fairytale prince; existing as yourself in the world is the best happy ending. Don't miss this classic indie movie streaming now on Popflick.
Ruby settles in Panama City Beach to begin a new life. Along with a new job, she also wins the unwanted attention of her boss' son, who threatens to spoil Ruby.Stream Now
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