Hollywood movies allow audiences to vicariously experience glamour, adventure, and excitement—in short, they entertain. Independent films, on the other hand, often seek to depict life as it’s actually lived. Since that’s not so entertaining, it’s crucial that they offer something equally valuable: insight. Merely noting for the record that many Americans eke out a marginal, hardscrabble existence doesn’t qualify, and that’s the trap into which Laurie Collyer’s theoretically admirable Sunlight Jr. falls. Largely plotless and relentlessly downbeat, the film, which stars Naomi Watts and Matt Dillon as a middle-aged couple barely scraping by, could be subtitled A Portrait Of Ordinary Poverty. Its intentions are pure, but only those viewers who assume that convenience-store clerks in their 40s enjoy lives of luxury and have limitless options will do much more than shrug in acknowledgement, feeling incredibly grateful not to be stuck in that rut.
Anyone watching Sunlight Jr. is automatically in better shape than Melissa (Watts) and Richie (Dillon), who are too broke to go see a movie (and don’t even have a computer they can use to illegally download one). Living together in a cheap Florida motel room, they do little more than subsist—though they do still share a robust sex life, since screwing is free. Melissa brings home the bacon bits by manning the counter at a local Sunlight Jr., the movie’s fictional equivalent of 7-Eleven or Circle K. Richie, who’s in a wheelchair for added pathos, does his best to scrounge a few bucks by repairing and reselling items (example: a VCR!) found at thrift stores. When Melissa unexpectedly discovers that she’s pregnant, they’re both overjoyed and start dreaming of their future as parents. But whether that’s a realistic option for them is questionable, especially since Melissa’s volatile, drug-dealing ex-boyfriend (Norman Reedus) is still hanging around, threatening to create a wedge between two people whose relationship is already fragile.
Collyer’s previous film, Sherrybaby, similarly trafficked in the struggles of the dispossessed, but it benefited from a live-wire lead performance by Maggie Gyllenhaal, whose character never came across as defeated. Watts and Dillon do fine, credible work, but they inhabit more of a generic sad-trombone zone, and they’re surrounded by low-rent caricatures—not just Reedus’ cackling creep, but Melissa’s boss (Antoni Corone), who sexually harasses her when he’s not just being a petty dictator, and her mom (Tess Harper), a foster parent perpetually seen all but ignoring a houseful of hyperactive kids. From the opening sequence, in which Richie runs out of gas in the rain while driving Melissa to work (he’s later seen siphoning gas from another car parked at their motel), Sunlight Jr. is one no-hope bummer after another, and it’s just not psychologically or sociologically acute enough to make the experience worthwhile. Watching anyone over 30 working for minimum wage would achieve the same goal in about 15 minutes.