It can be tempting in fiction to ennoble the struggles of people living in poverty, portraying those scraping to put food on the table as somehow more “real” or “pure” than the rest of us. If nothing else, Sunlight Jr. will disabuse you of this ridiculous idea. In writer-director Laurie Collyer’s character drama, there’s nothing noble about being poor; it’s an endless misery that has no simple solutions. That’s not to say that Sunlight Jr. looks down on its characters—rather, that it looks at them clearly. This is that rare movie that observes the lower class with an eye toward understanding precisely how such an economic prison forms and is perpetuated.
Inspired by Nickeled and Dimed, journalist Barbara Ehrenreich’s exposé on the realities of the working poor, Collyer has fashioned a story around the travails of a couple: convenience-store clerk Melissa (Naomi Watts) and unemployed Richie (Matt Dillon), who’s disabled and confined to a wheelchair. Living in an eyesore section of Florida littered with strip malls and empty storefronts, they’re shacked up at a grungy motel while plotting a way out of their predicament. But options are limited: Melissa talks vaguely about enrolling in college courses, while Richie repairs abandoned VCRs and tries to resell them when he’s not busy nursing a drinking problem.
Perhaps as a reflection of its characters’ stalled dreams, Sunlight Jr. doesn’t have much of a narrative engine. Melissa and Richie do little more than try to survive, which (as we discover) is eventful enough. They’re not to the point of begging or dumpster-diving, but the realities of their economic conditions are grim. Melissa brings home the unused foodstuff that her store was going to toss out, and Richie isn’t above siphoning gas out of other people’s cars. And when Melissa’s unexpected pregnancy brings medical complications, the couple fight about the necessity of having her checked out by a doctor—everything costs money, and so every action outside their usual routine has to be carefully considered.
Watts is a fine actress, but she doesn’t entirely convince as Melissa, this undereducated woman who’s devoted to her man but thoroughly unhappy with her dead-end existence. Though Watts plays Melissa without affectation—and she nails the character’s Southern accent—she still doesn’t seem of this particular world. (Even though her regal beauty has been deemphasized some, Watts nonetheless comes across as a touch too posh for this beaten-down character.) By comparison, Dillon is exceptional as Richie, a man riven by contradictions. A drunk but also a loyal boyfriend, Richie appears incapable of curbing his worst characteristics, constantly undone by jealousy, anger and pessimism. (He drinks mostly as a way to anesthetize himself.)
As Sunlight Jr. demonstrates, there are certain reasons why Melissa and Richie are poor—lack of schooling, lack of marketable skills, lack of stable family upbringings, Richie’s disability and alcoholism—but what keeps them in that situation is an inability to find a way out. That doesn’t translate into a “The poor are lazy” critique, though: Collyer (Sherrybaby) has too much compassion for her characters to condemn them so dismissively. Instead, she illustrates how poverty is almost like a disease, passed along from one generation to the next and trapping those in its path. The people we meet in Melissa and Richie’s orbit—her scummy ex-boyfriend, her pervy boss, her depressed mother (a superb Tess Harper)—aren’t terribly likable, but Collyer suggests that they’re all ensnared by the same bleakness, trying to find something worthwhile in a world that’s left them behind. Sunlight Jr. doesn’t forgive their failings as much as try to put them into context, which is far more insightful and humane than what we normally see on the news or during political campaigns when poverty is discussed.
Surrounded by so much unhappiness, Melissa and Richie’s passionate love is the one joy, and Collyer stresses their attraction through an intense sex scene, which argues that screwing is one pleasure even the poor can experience. But that love isn’t without its own impediments: If Sunlight Jr.’s meandering, observational storyline has a through-line, it’s Melissa’s nagging concern that Richie’s demons may be too much for her. Collyer doesn’t have a definitive answer to that question, however, which is fitting: This movie’s characters have become accustomed to making do with uncertainty.
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.
Director: Laurie Collyer
Writer: Laurie Collyer
Starring: Naomi Watts, Matt Dillon, Norman Reedus, Tess Harper
Release Date: Nov. 15, 2013