‘Sunlight Jr.’ is perceptive about poverty as well as relationships

Naomi Watts and Matt Dillon play a couple struggling to eke by in "Sunlight Jr." Credit: John Harris
Naomi Watts and Matt Dillon play a couple struggling to eke by in “Sunlight Jr.”
Credit: John Harris

‘Sunlight Jr.’
Director: Laurie Collyer
Stars: Noami Watts, Matt Dillon
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

In “Sunlight Jr.,” Naomi Watts and Matt Dillon dirty themselves up to play people several rungs lower on the economic ladder. They’re not the first attractive actors to do it, and certainly not the last. In one sense, the movie is one massive ball of cliches — another fit of, to employ an awful term, “poverty porn.” On the other, it’s an incredibly lived-in and specific set of cliches, one that does far more than merely torture its nice heroes with one indignity after another.

But it does that, too. Watts plays Melissa, a Nowhere, Florida, convenience store clerk with greasy hair undone by cheap shampoo. She lives in a motel with her boyfriend, Richie (Dillon), an unemployed paraplegic. They have little money to their name, which is a bit of a problem since she soon winds up pregnant.

Of course, “Sunlight Jr.” has other unpleasant surprises waiting for them. But neither actor showboats. Watts has sketched a career out of underplaying, of being the wallflower just confident enough to command attention. And Dillon brings his goofball bro charm to a guy who can’t fall back on his handicap to get jobs. Richie has a skill — fixing VHS players — that’s been outmoded for eons, and is too proud to adopt another. Like many in his economic state, he’s gotten too used to day drinking. And like one of Melissa’s ex-boyfriends — the vaguely sketchy Justin (Norman Reedus, who quietly, charismatically steals the film), who enjoys pestering her at work — he has an all-too-male temper that goes into attack when his manliness is undermined.

This is a film about living below the poverty line — about the pride of getting pregnant while trying to ignore whether it’s within one’s financial means. (When she goes to the doctor for what seems like a serious emergency, they have to have a fight over why she went at all.) But it’s also a film about a relationship that might not be a good idea. We’re used to the idea of love as a solution to everything — as the final proof of stability.

But like many other films this year, such as “Before Midnight” and “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” it asks whether that’s true and wonders if a couple might actually be better breaking up. Melissa and Richie might be good for each other, or they might actually be co-dependent. There’s no easy answer, which is one thing that makes “Sunlight Jr.” special.


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