A gritty misenscene to The Sunshine State, Director-Writer Laurie Collyer offers up a story about the depressive and economically stunted underbelly of sunny Southern Florida. Sunlight Jr. offers a predictable story as each frame permeates the depressive lives of a local cashier Melissa (Naomi Watts) and her paraplegic boyfriend Richie (Matt Dillon). Together they must deal with a surprising twist in their love story.
The uneven film tells a paper-thin story of two poverty-stricken uneducated lovers, who spend their time trying to make ends meet and loving each other hard in a rundown motel. Their story is not uplifting, and at the twenty-minute mark it’s easy to see that this won’t be wrapped up in a pretty little bow. In fact their story goes from bad to worse. Richie is confined to a wheelchair so their struggle is already ten times more difficult than the other couples living in the motel. As a result, Richie drinks and peddles fixed up VCR’s while making do with his Medicaid checks. Melissa is trying to bide her time as a cashier so she can eventually sign herself up for college, while dealing with her scummy ex Justin (Norman Reedus) who sells Oxycontin and stalks her at work.
While we have seen better performances from both Dillon and Watts, the two have an authentic chemistry that feels lived in, and that gives the film legs to stand on as it struggles to live up to the stories we’re already familiar with. Watts particularly wears a different character as Melissa, the underpaid cashier, who might have had a shady past that she can’t seem to escape from. She plays all of her scenes well, and they never seem rehearsed. Watts proves in Sunlight Jr. that she can take anything thrown at her and work with it to the best of her ability. A truly memorable scene shows Watt’s ability to silently engage a viewer. After a quick decision made on Watt’s character’s part, her horrified face says all we need to know about the thoughts swirling through her head.
Dillon has had his fair share of rugged characters, so he carries the weight of a man trapped inside of his own body well. It gives the viewer a sense that there is at least some semblance of character development, even if it barely registers in the script. A highlight for Dillon is that he’s actually charming, even though his character doesn’t have much going for him. The viewer can get a sense of the man he used to be, and why Watt’s character fell in love with him in spite of his shortcomings.
To Collyer’s credit, the director stays true to the identity of the film by showcasing a world that never gives to the pressure of its genre’s clichés. Watt’s character is showcased practically working in filth while being verbally berated by her napoleon-complex boss. On the other side is Dillon’s character as he desperately tries to hold up his end of the bargain. One scene sees Dillon stealing gas from a parked car to save money. It’s an unforgiving atmosphere, but unfortunately it doesn’t lend to tell much of a story. Instead the characters are left roaming in scenarios that have promise but simply meander.
Collyer knew what kind of characters she wanted to focus on, but its that fixation on the typical decrepit milieu that compromises its potential. Despite acting powerhouses like Dillon and Watts, their characters often fade into the background. The two characters rarely discuss their feelings, or desires, which would have worked fine, if they were given something to do. Instead the characters are devoid of any true character growth, leaving them to be unsympathetic and one-dimensional. While it’s nice to see the intimate and depressive moments between the couple as they share breakfast in Styrofoam containers, the extreme focus on the world of these characters ultimately weighs down an essentially abandoned narrative that might of had a chance to find its way to the surface otherwise.
Ultimately Collyer had all the pieces of a true masterpiece at her grasp, but the film ended up trapped in its own world.
SUNLIGHT JR. IS CURRENTLY PLAYING AT THE TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL