Tribeca 2013 Review: ‘Sunlight Jr.’ Shines With Great Performances and Cinematography

By  · Published on April 25th, 2013

Most women who become pregnant with the man they’re deeply in love with would see it as a joyous experience. In Laurie Collyer’s (Sherrybaby) Sunlight Jr., Melissa (Naomi Watts) certainly is deeply in love with her boyfriend Richie (Matt Dillon) when she discovers that she is expecting a baby, and is initially excited about the entire prospect of being a mother. Though when the reality sets in that she and Richie barely make enough money to get by living in a dank motel room, in addition to a bevy of other problems, a dark cloud rolls in over the otherwise happy news of pregnancy. Collyer’s film features great performances from Watts and Dillon, and the film’s cinematography is a standout, though it suffers somewhat from perhaps an overly literal depiction of the lower class.

Melissa makes minimum wage at a Florida convenience store called Sunlight Jr., even though she yearns for more in her life and desires to take part in the chain’s college program. Richie doesn’t work – he stays at home all day drinking in his wheelchair, collecting disability payments from a construction job injury. He used to make a lot of money, but that money is all gone. Despite their dire situation, they have quite a loving, supportive relationship. While her unexpected pregnancy throws them for a loop financially, they are nevertheless thrilled, since the baby is a manifestation of their love.

However, their problems aren’t just financial. Melissa’s ex-boyfriend Justin (Norman Reedus) still has it bad for her, and threateningly stalks her at her workplace after her restraining order ends. While Richie does his best to defend her, there’s just so much he can do since Justin is also the landlord of the trailer park where Melissa’s mother Kathleen (Tess Harper) lives. She needs the money she gets from the government from taking care of a bunch of foster kids. So Melissa and Richie can’t exactly risk putting Kathleen and all those kids on the street by standing up too much to the otherwise deplorable Justin. Melissa and Richie face many more hardships that make her question whether or not her happiness from being pregnant is well-founded.

Much of this film rests on the powerhouse performances from Watts and Dillon, and they definitely both deliver here. Even though they both play extremely flawed characters, they infuse them with such likability that you can’t help but want them to succeed and for their love to overcome all crises. Watts somewhat plays against type with Melissa, as she very rarely gets the opportunity to play a character so tough and so sexy – she usually gets the “good girl” roles, the fragile ingenue. Melissa does a sexy dance for Ritchie, she breaks Justin’s headlights, and you believe every moment of it. Dillon seldom gets meaty roles like this one – he is often seen in Hollywood schlock – and he also delivers here (and has never looked more attractive). His Ritchie is an alcoholic and has the odd fit of rage, but he’s so much more than that, and perhaps in the hands of a lesser actor this role wouldn’t have been as layered.

Collyer’s film also looks great – per the title, she photographs the sunlight in every scene so well. The light is a main feature of every shot, which is perhaps somewhat of an ironic maneuver. Florida is the “Sunshine State,” which would lead someone to think that it is happiness and levity – and yes, that sunshine is ever-present – but that hardly means that life is happy for all Florida residents. The sun shines down on trailer parks, on motels, on domestic violence – it’s not a cure-all for economic despair. The despair quotient is translated visually through the film’s muted colors and dark interiors, for a fully-realized cinematographic landscape.

The film is not without its drawbacks, however. Many of the depictions of the lower class come off as too literal and somewhat stereotypical. Melissa works in a convenience store. Her mother lives in a trailer park and lives off the government. Her boyfriend is an alcoholic in a wheelchair. Obviously people like this exist in real life under similar economic conditions but all of them at the same time? It almost seems a bit too textbook, so to speak. Then enters Reedus’ Justin with the thick thug chain around his neck and the drug dealing? Collyer’s lower class reads as obvious, and it detracts a lot from the otherwise great performances and overall look of the film.

These issues aside, I couldn’t stop thinking about this movie for some time after I left the theater, which I think says a lot. It’s certainly a powerful film, with powerful performances and digs to a deep emotional level. While I wish her vision of the lower class was toned down, Collyer certainly is a talented director and has the potential to be a strong female voice in cinema and I would look forward to seeing more from her.

The Upside: Great performances from Naomi Watts and Matt Dillon; film also looks great with cinematography that exploits the bright Floridian sun in contrast to the otherwise muted colors

The Downside: The depiction of the lower classes here may perhaps be a little stereotypical

On the Side: Laurie Collyer was inspired to make the film after reading the book Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich.