Each time I sat down to work on my review for Sunlight Jr., I found myself stuck on the first line. How do I describe this movie? How do I talk about it? It felt too honest for me to discuss glibly. It also made me incredibly uncomfortable even though the people in the movie are people I’ve known my whole life. Maybe that was why.
It threw me to see the lives of many people I know reflected back at me. I saw myself during a time that I didn’t want to remember. That made the movie so personal that it was almost invasive. Yet, the day after I watched it, I bought it. It’s sitting on my computer now and though I’m not sure if I’ll be able to watch it again, I don’t regret the purchase. I don’t regret seeing it. It hit a few chords that, while deeply personal to me, are also relevant to this time of social and economic unrest.
Sunlight Jr. is the story of Melissa (Naomi Watts) and Richie (Matt Dillon). We meet them somewhere in the middle of their relationship, where they are in love enough to still act playfully with each other but are also far enough along to know there’s problems beneath the surface. But they have a routine and they are, if not happy, content. Melissa works at a convenience store with a boss that is more jerk than human being. He comes across somewhat as a caricature and is only saved from that particular character death by not being both jerk and lecher. Thankfully, we only see him a few times and he is really the only empty secondary character in the film.
Between them, Melissa is the more stable one while Richie seems a more forlorn soul. A former construction worker turned paraplegic alcoholic, he does little jobs for the tenants of the seedy weekly motel the couple live in. When he’s not at the bar he’s clearly a regular of or hanging out with some of the aforementioned tenants, some of which look as if they have fallen on harder times than Richie and Melissa have seen. Watching him with them though, you can’t help but feel that he’s only barely managed to keep from becoming just like them.
The film is full of those moments. I would go so far as to say that that is the theme: only a handful of decisions stand between us and becoming a dark version of ourselves. Often, those decisions are out of our hands. Like when Melissa finds out she’s pregnant at the same time her boss tells her she’s going to start working the graveyard shift. Or when Justin (Norman Reedus), her ex, pops up to alternately torment her and fight for her attention, a fact that drives Richie up the wall. Or when Melissa loses her job, a scene that is in the trailer but actually has far more poignancy than expected as the couple, unable to pay their rent now, are forced to move into Melissa’s mother’s trailer home, which is owned by Justin.
I think, for me, the most surreal moments of this movie came once Melissa and Richie had to move. I knew a Justin. I know a Melissa and a Richie. I knew a version of Melissa’s mom. I’ve lived as they had to live, working just to survive by the skin of my teeth. What I mean by this is that, I can see that writer/director Laurie Collyer put in the work to tell this story and bring the downtrodden to light. There will be people who only see the bleakness. It is far from being a happy movie. But there are moments, as there are in life, that I smiled. Her casting was excellent as Watts and Dillon knock it out of the park, breathing tough, gritty life into their characters. Reedus stands with them, managing to add hidden layers into his character within a small amount of time. Filmed on location in Florida, the film is shown in sharp, stark color, with shadows frequently chased away by light as if Collyer wanted to make sure you could see every crack in the sidewalk and in her characters.
This film is a slice of life that not many are going to want to see and will do their best to wash away afterward. That’s what happens when a film digs into the places that hurt. But I still urge people to see it. If you take anything away from it, take the fact that these people will find a way to survive, one way or the other and if that isn’t something to admire then I don’t know what is.
Sunlight Jr. is available for purchase and On Demand on iTunes, Youtube, Vudu, Amazon, Youtube, Google Play, Xbox Live, and Sony. More information can be found on the movie’s website here.
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