Sunlight Jr. (2013) / Drama
MPAA Rated: R for sexuality, nudity, and language
Running Time: 95 min.
Cast: Naomi Watts, Matt Dillon, Norman Reedus, Tess Harper, Antoni Corone
Director: Laurie Collyer
Screenplay: Laurie Collyer
Review published October 19, 2013
Quality performances are the main selling point of Sunlight Jr., with Naomi Watts (Adore, The Impossible) and Matt Dillon (Girl Most Likely, You Me and Dupree) in fine form as the financially-struggling couple at the heart of this film from Sherrybaby writer-director Laurie Collyer. Watts stars as Melissa, a cashier at a convenience store that bears the name of the movie. Dillon is her disabled boyfriend, Richie, who contributes little to the financial situation other than his disability checks, which he often uses to purchase unnecessary items like the booze he drinks copious amounts of. The pressure mounts to sky-high proportions due to an unplanned pregnancy, initially elating them, but now they wonder how they're going to make it when they can barely take care of themselves, much less one more mouth to feed.
Sunlight Jr. is set in the Sunshine state of Florida, though life isn't always 'sunny' for those trying to live from day to day working minimum wage jobs, living in seedy motels and dingy trailer parks. The poor, while continuing to work, are barely making ends meet, to the point that they either have to rack up considerable credit card debts in order to pay for such things as medical care and gas (Richie is shown having to siphon gas illegally to keep up with their transportation needs), or have to rely on the kindness of family and friends to bail them out time and again.
If there's anything that can be taken away from this well-meaning but less-than-entertaining piece, it's that trying to scrape by from paycheck to paycheck leads to a very difficult life from which there's no easy means of escape. Melissa would like to try her hand at furthering her education and career with an offer of a college opportunity promoted by the company that runs the Sunlight Jr. franchise, but it's hard to find the time to even fill out the application when she has a needy live-in boyfriend, a shady and abusive ex (Reedus, Blade II) who stalks her, extra shifts at work, an unsympathetic boss (Corone, We Own the Night) who harasses her constantly, and no medical insurance for any form of prenatal care. Due to being just a minor catastrophe away from homelessness, the movie pushes forward the notion that the poor must endure far more negativity in their lives, such as accepting a nearly intolerable working conditions, unsanitary environs, and the inability to seek adequate health care.
Even though some might think that Collyer would paint her characters purely as victims of unfortunate circumstances, there's probably enough fodder in the material for some people to also think that these characters live in poverty partially due to their own decisions, or inability to make them. Richie is shown as griping to Mel about an impromptu trip to emergency care in order to check out some alarming discharge that has her fearing for her health and that of the baby, but he has little compulsion about spending those precious dollars on his self-destructive alcohol consumption. And this drunkenness paints him in an even less positive light when he is told by a social worker that he could apply himself to learning something that could help land him a job in a hi-tech industry, but he exerts no effort to doing so. While both characters desire to have the comfort of living in better circumstances, they don't do nearly enough to plan for their financial future, though both have opportunities that present themselves that they are reluctant to apply to.
Collyer doesn't preach about the subject matter, she merely shows and lets us draw our own conclusions, though that doesn't exactly make for a riveting narrative. There's no plot that's built up, and no conclusion tied up in a neat bow. Yet, as much as your heart goes out to people in need, and there is a heartbreaking scene in which the financial realities take on particularly tragic consequences (I won't spoil it, but you'll know it if you see it), there's really little here from a story standpoint except various examples of the daily difficulties for those living in poverty. A documentary based on a real-life couple trying to keep from drowning in debt would be much more interesting and impactful than a fabricated drama without a narrative arc to carry us through to a satisfactory conclusion. Even with all of the pieces in place for a compelling movie to blossom, it falls short of a story told well.
©2013 Vince Leo