Laurie Collyer found inspiration for the new film Sunlight Jr. from the progressive minded Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich.
The book argued on behalf of the working poor, with the author demanding government solutions for those struggling to make ends meet.
That’s precisely the situation facing the couple in writer/director Collyer’s new film. Naomi Watts and Matt Dillon play lovers barely able to meet their monthly bills. The film wants us to rage against their plight–what it does is reveal the maddeningly bad choices that put too many people on the cusp of bankruptcy.
Watts plays Melissa, a woman who works in a WaWa-style convenience store under a cruel boss. Richie (Dillon) is a paraplegic who receives a modest government stipend but also does odd repair work on the side.
Melissa can’t quite quit her abusive ex (Norman Reedus, languishing in a one-note role) or the pills which offer a temporary respite from her plight. She is a far cry from a model employee, and it’s unclear what jobs she held before working in such a depressing store. Richie does his fair share of drinking, wasting money that could be going to rent or other immediate concerns.
They aren’t married, but they live in a motel, a situation that may be yet another drain on their resources.
It’s as depressing a scenario as any you’ll see on a big or small screen this year, one augmented by a gritty palette that accentuates the negative. It’s the ugliest movie of the year–on purpose.
When Melissa learns she is expecting a child, the couple rejoice at the news. What they soon learn is a child could shatter the delicate but potent bond between them.
Sunlight Jr. is an actor’s showcase, a chance for movie stars to expose themselves as real people, wrinkles and all. Dillon pulls off the transformation slightly better, but Watts is able to douse her radiant beauty enough to convince us she’s just another working stiff. Their technique still peeks through, spoiling the intended effect.
Collyer captures the details of life on the financial edge, from voices raised a few decibels too high to the frayed nerves that result from not having anything saved for a rainy day. She doesn’t put lectures in the mouths of her stars or set up sequences that cry out for government intervention. One sequence involving an unnecessary medical procedure sheds light on health care woes, but it’s just one of many calamities the couple faces.
That restraint is admirable, but one watches Sunlight Jr. through to the end without assessing a narrative purpose. It wallows in indie cinema vagaries, with a third act decision delivered in neutral shades.
Viewers will feel for Melissa and Richie, but they will yearn for a more satisfying story as well as characters capable of self reflection.