Low-key and ambling, "Ruby in Paradise" is a nice little character study, an independent film from Victor Nunez, who also gave us "Gal Young Un" and "A Flash of Green" a few years ago. (Nunez's work has been a staple of the Sundance Film Festival since its earliest incarnations, and "Ruby" shared the dramatic competition grand prize in 1993.)

But the film's central performance by Ashley Judd as Ruby, a young Tennessee woman in South Florida, is what gives the movie its strength. Judd is a most appealing performer with great screen presence. Here is your chance to see a genuine rising star in the early stages of her career.

The story has Ruby traveling from her home in Tennessee to Panama City, Fla., a small resort town. Trained in retail sales, Ruby hopes to land a job but pickings are slim since she has arrived in the off-season. The owner of a small shop takes pity on her, however, and hires her.

In the store, she is befriended by another clerk (Allison Dean, who is also very good), and given just one stipulation — she's not to date the boss' son (Bentley Mitchum). Naturally, she does, with unhappy results.

Later, Ruby takes up with another local (Todd Field), a much nicer guy but something of a male chauvinist pig, as the men in her life take on symbolic meaning. Later, she loses her job and has trouble finding another, as her life appears to be on a downward spiral.

This is character-driven drama without a lot of plot, and some of Ruby's thoughts about life, as heard on the soundtrack as she writes in her journal, are a bit much. There's no question that the film could have used more humor and energy.

But to call the film a labor of love is to understate, and it isn't a cheap-looking backyard production. With a lovely look and an understanding view of life in south Florida, "Ruby in Paradise" manages to offer up honest observations on the little dramas that make up our everyday lives without resorting to melodramatic flourish. Nunez also makes us feel and understand the land and the people of this small resort town.

Nunez, who wrote, directed, operated the camera and edited the film, had been unable to get funding for "Ruby in Paradise," when he came into a trust fund from a relative that passed away. He raised the rest by putting up his own property as collateral for a loan. Now that's a labor of love.

But the film's real saving grace is Judd — who, by the way, is the daughter of Naomi and sister of Wynonna, the singing Judds. Her wonderfully subtle, introspective performance is a remarkable turn, as deserving of Oscar attention as any of the five nominees for best actress this year. She's that good.

"Ruby in Paradise" is not rated but is in R-rated territory, mainly for a strip-tease scene in a nightclub where Ruby momentarily considers taking a job. There is also sex, a couple of profanities and a brief attempted rape.