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SUNLIGHT JR. and American Film's Misunderstanding of Poverty

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by Max Winter
November 18, 2013 4:04 PM
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American filmmakers don't understand the poor. From Charlie Chaplin's Tramp films on through Push: Based on the Novel by Sapphire, the portrayal of impoverished people in films has settled into a comfortable group of cliches: living rooms crowded with children and toys. Bad teeth. Extreme lighting: either too dark or too bright. Bad posture: usually slouched. Dilapidated cars. Disgruntled employees, merciless employers. Bad pop music. Drug habits, usually debilitating. Bad luck, often contributing towards plot developments. Poor judgment in sexual, financial, and interpersonal matters. Terrible diet, often consisting of junk food. Crumbling housing, run-down neighborhoods. A taste for petty crime. Ragged clothes. Lack of personal upkeep. These are but some of the guideposts by which we, as viewers, are misled about the nature and the pervasiveness of poverty in America, or the different forms it might take. (Hey, why doesn't someone make a film about poor graduate students, or, better yet, adjunct professors?) Sadly, Laurie Collyer's Sunlight Jr. does little to reverse these cliches. Muzzling gifted actors with a middling script, it plunges into a sadness so deep but also so shallow that, despite the despair at the core of the storyline, about a man and a woman facing one set of closing doors after another in the strip mall territory of Florida, the film at times seems near-comic.

Matt Dillon, as Richie, and Naomi Watts, as Melissa, are both actors with a tremendous amount of control, though this manifests itself differently in each case. Films such as Drugstore Cowboy, Factotum, or even Beautiful Girls show Dillon's comfort with his body and his size, whether he's playing a drug addict, a drunk, or a washed-up high school hunk--here, Dillon plays a man in a wheelchair, and he looks as if he's been in it for years. And, likewise, anyone who watched Naomi Watts in her best performance, the budding actress in Mulholland Dr., couldn't argue that she is willing to take the risks necessary to embody an emotion fully, as in her near-orgasmic eruption during a movie audition. And yet, natural as both these talents might be, the words Dillon and Watts say in this film simply don't fall comfortably out of their mouths, giving it more the feeling of an educational filmstrip than that of a story or a narrative.

Or perhaps it's not so much the words as the structure in which they're placed. Very early in the film, punishingly early, when Melissa shows up for work at the convenience store which gives the movie its name, she asks her boss, all-too-brightly, if he's found out about the store's college program, tapping us on the forehead with a hint that she's ambitious. The moment doesn't float. Later, once she and Richie have been evicted from the motel where they've shacked up, and she's staying with her mother (who has a living room full of adopted children), she points at a hot plate and asks one of the kids, "You know what's that?" Does anyone actually talk like this? And who would make conversation about a hot plate, if not to bring attention to it as a symbol of poverty? Watts fares more poorly than Dillon here; he gets through his lines by achieving a state of depressed relaxation. When he announces, early in the film, that he's going to repair a piece of electronic equipment, and bring some money in, he almost mumbles it, which makes this exposition, this introduction of the concept of "scraping by," a smidgen more believable.

The film takes us from one depressing locale to another. It starts in an intensely dark motel room which stays dark throughout, its bedside lamps dim, its shades always drawn. The bar where Richie goes when Melissa is at work is similarly dim, and nearly empty. The cheaply carpeted home where Melissa's mother lives and drinks excessively isn't necessarily dark, but it's ratty and, as Melissa discovers, infested with bed bugs. One would think the palm trees native to Florida would provide some small uplift here--but instead they tower above the film, as if they might fall on it at any moment. The interior of the Planned Parenthood clinic where Melissa goes when she find out she's pregnant is, as one might expect, lit by bright flourescent lights. The only seemingly hopeful moment occurs in a daydream, when Richie is (surprise, surprise) being told by a government worker there are few work options for him; he imagines that he gets up, walks out of the office, and out into a gloriously bright day that offers us the first ray of sunshine we've seen yet in the film.

As one might suspect, things don't go well for these downtrodden figures--how could they? The film often reads as if Collyer took Nickel and Dimed, the Barbara Ehrenrich book about the working poor which gave the film its inspiration, a bit too literally, bleeding the element of surprise or unpredictability out of her subject matter, presenting viewers with a tale which is resolved before it has begun. And yet, as America's economy declines, this subject matter may become increasingly common--and those who wish to render it will need to find a new way to approach it.

Max Winter is the Editor of Press Play.

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