Review: Sunlight Jr.
PLOT: Melissa and Richie are a couple trying to survive during hard times in a small town. She works miserable hours at a mini-market and he is a paraplegic who attempts to support her emotionally when he is able. All of it becomes too much to bear when job loss and unexpected pregnancy finds its way into their lives.
There is a bleak and disheartening world created in the new film SUNLIGHT JR. starring Matt Dillon and Naomi Watts. Writer/director Laurie Collyer (SHERRYBABY) gives us two very dysfunctional characters with a very human and terribly honest day to day struggle they must survive. Watts is Melissa, a woman who works at a local twenty-four hour market – where the film’s title comes from – who supports her paraplegic boyfriend Richie played by Dillon. The two attempt to overcome a number of challenges as she continues to work for a despicable manager who clearly hates his job as well. These people in this small, miserable town are just looking for a way out, yet there is very little hope in Collyer’s aching drama.
It would have been easy to tell a story like SUNLIGHT JR. with overly sympathetic leanings, yet the approach here is far more honest. As difficult as life is for Melissa and Richie, they are never treated as victims or simply clichéd ideas of the poor and downtrodden. In fact, with all the faults they possess it is easy to find truth in their story. In the opening moments when Richie is revealed to be in a wheelchair, the filmmaker isn’t looking for sympathy. This is who he is and this is the life he is leading. The same goes for Melissa. Sure there is serious frustration in the fact that she doesn’t fight back a little, yet the same could be said for a number of others who just “get by” in her exact situation.
As for the supporting players in this drama, Norman Reedus is Justin and he is suitably sleazy as Melissa’s ex-boyfriend who happens to own her mother’s home. He is a terrible father who is the epitome of being a bad example for his teenage son. Even still he is not a paint-by-numbers villain. Like everybody else he is just trying to survive and can’t seem to adjust to his own harsh disappointment. Don’t get me wrong, this is not a likable character yet there are moments of sincerity, even for him. The same could be said for Melissa’s mother Kathleen (wonderfully played by Tess Harper) who takes in foster kids in order to bring in more money. Innocence is a foreign concept to these despondent souls.
As joyless as this may sound, both Watts and Dillon bring a real sense of love to their characters. The relationship they present is at once heartfelt and even surprisingly funny without failing to evoke some sort of emotion for their plight. When she faces the realization of a major life change for the couple it still manages to rise above simply being sappy and melodramatic. This is a perfectly cast film and both actors offer two compelling performances. However it is Watts who once again takes a role that could have easily been weak and pathetic – similar to her recent film ADORE - and gives her a spark of life.
Collyer is a gifted storyteller with a knack for writing damaged characters who can’t seem to rise above their impossible odds. This is not a story about fighting back; it is simply about finding a way to survive in a cruel world. As good as SUNLIGHT JR. may be, the humor and soul found is of limited joy. At times the film is too realistic and far from any sort of movie going escape that some audiences may look for. What you do get however is a well-written and delicately portrayed look at a couple trying to love and understand themselves and the bitter world around them.