To orient you to a filmmaker who's been away for far too long: If Wes Anderson’s central preoccupation is tightly-controlled diorama-like compositions, Tim Burton’s obsession is dark, kooky misfits, and Sofia Coppola’s fixation is alienated teenagers soundtracked to exquisite pop songs, then Laurie Collyer’s main absorption is the forgotten underclass and their perils.
The filmmaker behind “Sherrybaby” (and the gripping social documentary “Nuyorican Dream”), Collyer hasn’t made a movie since 2006, but her latest, “Sunlight Jr.,” could easily act as the third in a trilogy about the the impoverished, the destitute and the depressed.
And severely depressed, “Sunlight Jr.” is. So much so that it may be too hard to watch for some viewers. Set in the indigent, trailer-park trash areas of Southern Florida, Collyer’s latest writer/directorial effort centers on a uneducated, penniless couple struggling to get by on minimum wage. Their daily struggle is doubly difficult to endure because Richie (Matt Dillon) is a paraplegic confined to a wheelchair. The best he can do is a small stipend of Medicare aid, disability compensation and selling off broken electronics that this handyman has fixed. To ease the grind he siphons gasoline from cars and indulges in a little too much booze to take off the edge. But Richie isn’t a bitter drunk, never feels sorry for himself and is always trying to be the man of the house despite his challenges.
Melissa (Naomi Watts) on the other hand is the breadwinner of the house -- make that the motel room they rent and the bills they suffer to pay each month. But her thankless minimum wage job at a convenience chain called Sunlight is little source of financial or emotional comfort. The manager is a sleazeball, the pay is pitiful, and soon she’s working dangerous graveyard hours. Exacerbating their difficulties is Justin (Norman Reedus), a greasy scumbag OxyContin dealer and the abusive ex-boyfriend that is stalking Melissa at work.
The couple's best reprieve, other than cigarettes and booze, is their copious, lustful lovemaking. Yes, Richie can’t walk, but fortunately for them, it’s still fully functioning downstairs (and yes, since this is a Laurie Collyer film and Naomi Watts stars, there’s plenty of naked raw sex and nudity). But on top of strained finances, a shitty boss and a harassing ex-boyfriend, the couple’s life takes a turn for the worse when they become pregnant. What is briefly a joyful occasion quickly becomes another increasingly difficult obstacle when Melissa’s store manager gives her late-night shifts and an emergency hospital visit lands them a $1,500 medical bill they don’t know how to pay.
Though Collyer always presents her characters with respect and dignity and her “Sunlight Jr.” drama is in many respects soulful, humanistic and an authentic portrait of the distressed and exploited have-nots, the picture is also unrelentingly bleak. Few rays of hope or sunlight enter the frames of this picture and every dire situation and circumstance grows into something more oppressively dark.
Matt Dillon and Naomi Watts anchor the picture with absorbing and impressive performances, but “Sunlight Jr." is also lacking much narrative. Or rather, Collyer is much less interested in narrative and three-act structure (which often give directionless pictures a little focus) than she is in her characters. This is to the picture’s benefit and detriment. On the one hand, the film and screenplay is smart enough to never explain how Richie got into a wheelchair (the worst case scenario being an expository line of dialogue that sticks out like a sore thumb). And it’s honest and doesn’t feel the need to add crime or one central dramatic plot device to lift the stakes or movie-ize the narrative. On the flip side of the coin, some even small concessions towards story could have made the drama feel less like an abject and merciless portrait of the underprivileged.
While the picture is not completely despondent, it’s far, far from the feel-good film of the year and this may limit its options, even in the arthouse circuit. Dinosaur Jr. frontman J. Mascis does the score, which mostly works when less is more, but sometimes you wish indie-rockers would seek a lending hand with more complex scenes -- quiet and loud aren’t nuanced enough for the emotional spectrum of character piece movies. Especially this one.
Unflinchingly honest and grim, “Sunlight Jr.” is a valuable piece of work from a filmmaker who has a distinctive voice and concerns. It’s good to have Collyer back after a seven-year absence from cinema and it’s important for someone like her to tell these stories of the undervalued and disadvantaged. Still, one can’t help but think about her previous effort, “Sherrybaby,” the Golden Globe-nominated indie that chronicled some similar brutal realities with the social realism milieu. Equally dark and also centering on excruciatingly damaged and dysfunctional characters, it somehow managed that tonal livewire dance of blending genuinely dire circumstances with hope and a little more narrative. In contrast, this is a similar difficult-to-survive ocean of pain, minus the life preserver. [B-]