SUNLIGHT JR. – The Review

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Around the time of the last presidential elections we heard quite a bit about the income discrepancies in the US thanks to the Occupy Wall Street movement protests that eventually spilled over into that election campaign (still recall that “parasite” speech) with talk about the “job creators” and the “takers”. Well it was only a matter of time before a film producer would focus in on the “have-nots” or as Occupy called themselves, the “99 percent”. Time to shine a light on the “working poor”. Or better yet let’s upon the movie drapery and let SUNLIGHT JR. shine in.

Down in balmy Clearwater, Florida Melissa (Naomi Watts) lives in a grimy, run-down motel with her paraplegic boyfriend Richie (Matt Dillon). They’re barely scraping by on her cashier job at the dingy 24-hour gas and convenience shop, Sunlight Jr. ,and his disability checks. She’s got to put up with a sleazy pig of a boss and constant visits from her drug-dealin’ ex beau Justin (Norman Reedus). Richie spends his days in a bar when he’s not playing drunken kids’ games with his motel neighbors in the nearby parking lot. Then Melissa finds out that she is pregnant which delights both of them. But when her boss orders her to take on the “graveyard” overnight shift, this begins a downward spiral that the couple may never get past.

Watts and Dillon do their best to strip away their Hollywood star power to play a couple literally living from paycheck to paycheck. She still has a touch of the studio glamour even as she dresses down in resale duds and chain smokes (sheesh, who lights up before they’ve dried off from the shower? Yechh!). But her sad eyes convey all her fears and worry about the new arrival since it’s tough enough just for the two of them. Dillon is mostly drunken bravado and enthusiasm. He’s ecstatic about fatherhood (maybe just thrilled that the accident didn’t take his manhood along with his legs) and bluffs about a brighter future as he tries to sell re-tooled VCRs (really, people are buying them?). But Watts’s Melissa can’t work up any enthusiasm for his boasts. Reedus is a great despicable lowlife villain who’s determined to win her back from “that #$@* gimp!” at all costs. He’s all seething anger and resentment. The film also stars the great Tess Harper (TENDER MERCIES) as Melissa’s tough, but often clueless single mother who tries to work the system by keeping several foster children. But she also depends on help from the couple (cash and groceries) while she waits on those government checks. Mom fervently believes that her daughter could do better than the boozing, temperamental Richie.

The actors put their best efforts in to the material, but to what purpose? The film makers have good intentions as they present a portrait of people trying to live below the poverty line, but the movie too often wallows in misery without a way of making things better. Any small attempt to better themselves ends in frustration as countless doors are slammed in their faces. And often times they are partly to blame (just how much are they spending on booze and smokes?). The supporting players and the very un-inviting Florida locations are well utilized, but it’s in service to an unfocused script. To flip on old movie marketing adage, “it’s the feel-bad movie of the year”. I know, what about 12 YEARS A SLAVE? Well, at least we knew that slavery would soon be abolished. It seems that the characters of SUNLIGHT JR. will never be freed from those chains of poverty.

2 out of 5


Jim Batts was a contestant on the movie edition of TV's "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" in 2009 and has been a member of the St. Louis Film Critics organization since 2013.

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