Crafting another well-intentioned, socially conscious film built around a strong female performance, Laurie Collyer drops Sunlight Jr. on audiences like a bomb. Guaranteed to alienate those who demand a reassuringly saccharine story arc with their cultural vegetables, it assaults its hapless protagonists with an unrelenting barrage of disastrous occurrences, teeth gritted with a Dickensian determination to draw attention to the plight of the poor in a post-recession Florida wasteland. An admirable refusal to adhere to any overexposed poverty-porn templates, however, is taken a little too far in the opposite direction, to the point that the film feels self-consciously shapeless. To this end, the lived-in performances appear unmoored in a sea of almost arbitrary indignities reiterating the observation that life is difficult for America’s growing underclass without providing much further insight.
Naomi Watts further hones her ability to play women pushed to their limits, here inhabiting the role of a beleaguered convenience store clerk, Melissa. Already weighed down by the mundane horrors of her workplace (a bullying boss, mind-numbing boredom, lack of prospects), her burdens are suddenly intensified by a stalker ex, Justin (Norman Reedus), and an unplanned pregnancy. Consistent support from loved ones appears unlikely. Her boyfriend, Richie (Matt Dillon), is a borderline alcoholic and paraplegic, unwilling to contribute much more than a meager disability check (or what’s left of it after the daily booze run) and an obsolete “mid-tech” skill set repairing VCRs and old TVs. Her mother, Kathleen (Tess Harper), is also an alcoholic, barely getting by on cashing government checks intended for the gaggle of foster kids she nominally looks after. As the financial and existential obstacles pile up and the men in her life grow increasingly unstable, Melissa starts to interrogate the notion that a pregnancy is, by default, good news.
While the escalating misfortunes end up feeling like overkill, the developments are portrayed with enough genuine empathy that the film stops short of becoming exploitative. The temptation to infuse the proceedings with contrived tension is wisely resisted. The scenes involving Reedus’s small-time drug dealer never snowball into an out-and-out criminal subplot, and the relationship between Melissa and Richie is characterized as a legitimately loving one, undermined not by any lack of devotion, but by Richie’s over-compensatory machismo and inability to get his act together. Collyer understands the inherent drama of everyday life in this milieu, allowing it to emerge in organic fashion without resorting to depictions of spousal abuse and criminality so common to films dealing with America’s underprivileged. In recognizing the moments of beauty—an impromptu sack race or a refreshingly naturalistic sex scene—in the lives of these otherwise thoroughly miserable people, Collyer makes Richie and Melissa feel like characters rather than pity-inducing conceits.
This spirited indie is notable for its intimate cinematography, which offsets psychological misery with exterior brightness (ironically, even the convenience store where Melissa works is called Sunlight Jr.), and impressive performances, though Harper’s character does stray perilously close to patronizing caricature. Worse, the sheer deluge of setbacks accumulated upon Melissa begins to strain credulity, a muted note of optimism at the end of the film notwithstanding. There’s no doubt people suffer all this and more in real life, but it feels excessive in this particular context, especially since it doesn’t seem clear where Collyer is going with all of it. Yet Collier’s focus on highlighting very specific hardships experienced by women—sexual harassment, physical danger, the need to micro-manage male egos while juggling domestic and professional responsibilities—is notable, and it’s given dimension by Watts’s committed portrayal. There’s an aesthetic and moral sensibility at work here that (almost) never resorts to sensationalizing its subject or preaching to its audience, and while Sunlight Jr. doesn’t delve deep enough to be a character study or pull back enough to function as considered social commentary, it distinguishes itself as an often affecting look at two people just trying to get by.