Sunlight Jr. is about a couple so far out on the fringes of life, they’re on the verge of falling off altogether. Melissa (Naomi Watts) and her boyfriend Richie (Matt Dillon) love and care for each other, but they’re nearly destitute, forced to live in ramshackle motel rooms. Melissa works at the eponymous 24-hour convenience store where people buy road maps and scratch-off lottery tickets and six-packs of beer. Richie is a former construction worker left paraplegic after an accident. He’s on disability pay, but that’s barely enough to cover the cost of gas for their car.
Neither Melissa nor Richie is educated or has much work experience: They’re the kind of resourceful, savvy people who assumed they would always manage to get by, but that became increasingly difficult with age. Richie drinks too much and laments being trapped in a wheelchair (during a visit to the unemployment office, he fantasizes about standing up and walking to the front door, holding it open for a woman). Melissa, who is constantly harrassed by her drug-dealing ex (Norman Reedus), is being transferred from the daytime shift to overnights by her uncaring boss. And then Melissa gets pregnant.
Sunlight Jr. was written and directed by Laurie Collyer (Sherrybaby), who obviously cares deeply for her disenfranchised characters and their desperate existence. She gets strong performances out of Watts and Dillon, who are convincing as two people who have nothing left to cling to except each other. The movie has a gritty, realistic veneer, and the scenes inside the home of Melissa’s mother (Tess Harper), an alcoholic who takes in foster kids for the government handout, have a near-documentary feel.
But Sunlight Jr. is more of a situation than a movie. You keep waiting for the story to reveal itself — for a plot to kick in, for something to happen other than the downward spiral that has trapped the protagonists. But nothing ever happens. Sunlight Jr. is what is often described as a slice-of-life drama, but this one is more of a tiny sliver, and it doesn’t leave you with much to chew on.
Cast: Naomi Watts, Matt Dillon, Norman Reedus, Tess Harper.
Writer-director: Laurie Collyer.
Producers: Charlie Corwin, Ariel Ella, Andrea Roa.
A Samuel Goldwyn release. Running time: 90 minutes. Vulgar language, nudity, sexual situations, adult themes. Opens Friday Nov. 15 in Miami-Dade: O Cinema Miami Shores; in Broward: Cinema Paradiso.