Tribeca Review: Sunlight Jr

Ashley Clark

Unremitting misery is the name of the game in grubby indie drama Sunlight Jr., Laurie Collyer’s turgid, if well-intentioned, follow-up to 2006’s breakthrough Sherrybaby. Its misleadingly upbeat title refers to the name of the convenience store in which hardscrabble Florida motel resident Melissa (Naomi Watts) reluctantly grafts a meagre living. Such heavy-handed irony acts as a neat microcosm for the film’s anvil-like touch toward its story and characters.

Saddled with a lecherous middle-manager at the store, poor Melissa has other man trouble in the shape of an abusive ex-paramour (Norman Reedus), who’s sniffing around following the expiration of his restraining order. The one chink of light in Melissa’s life is her partner Richie (Matt Dillon), a paraplegic who lives with her in the claustrophobic motel room, and supports their small income with his welfare check. Richie also has problems: he’s fond of a drink or two, and, in one scene (which goes mystifyingly unreferred to elsewhere), wheeling himself up to cars and huffing petrol. The narrative desperately needs something to kick it forward, so Melissa falls pregnant. Richie is thrilled, and the pair plan for a positive future despite their parlous social and financial condition. Needless to say, things don’t go particularly swimmingly.

It feels a bit wrong to rag on a low-budget film which is so palpably trying to portray an underclass with sensitivity, but there’s really no excuse for its parade of borderline condescending working-class clichés, overdetermined plot mechanics, and tin-eared attempts at gutter poetry (“Ya know... ah got some powerful sperm!”). It’s the type of film that ladles on the misery in the hope of achieving profundity without ever really telling us anything about the characters. Worse, it’s so visually and thematically static that it fails to build up any sort of dramatic or emotional traction. The director’s single attempt to elevate the material out of the quotidian is a genuinely toe-curling sex scene set to the strains of ‘Butterfly’ by '90s rap-rock buffoons Crazy Town. Meanwhile Dinosaur Jr. man J. Mascis’ keening, over-busy guitar score gives the whole thing a distracting ‘90s music video vibe. On the plus side, Collyer deserves credit for avoiding the temptation to go all-out depressing in a finale that offers a glimmer of hope, while Watts – who’s slumming here, in truth – puts in a dependably affecting, unselfconscious performance. Still, it’s not enough to make Sunlight Jr. worth recommending.

Follow Ashley on Twitter: @_Ash_Clark

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