Incandescent performances by Naomi Watts and Matt Dillon and an unerring grasp of strip-mall-dominated Florida distinguish “Sunlight Jr.,” the latest feature from writer-director Laurie Collyer (“Sherrybaby”). Naomi Watts and Matt Dillon topline as a hard-luck couple scrabbling to keep their heads above water; she works as a cashier at the convenience store that gives the film its title, while he’s in a wheelchair, collecting disability. To deal with daily frustrations, he drinks, while she struggles to stay off pills. This in-depth study of minimum-wage purgatory could earn a healthy theatrical run in specialty release.
Melissa (Watts) plugs away at her dead-end job with her eye on a college scholarship offered by the franchise, though her disagreeable boss (Antoni Corone) hardly encourages her, no doubt angered by her refusal to respond to his heavy-handed flirting. Meanwhile, boyfriend Richie (Dillon) delivers groceries to Mel’s mom (Tess Harper), repairs small appliances and hangs out at a local bar, laboriously taking apart and reassembling his wheelchair every time he enters or exits his car. At a particularly discouraging appointment at a government disability office, he fantasizes about abruptly standing up and striding out, feeling incredibly empowered by his mobility until he’s brought crashing back to earth.
Collyer and lenser Igor Martinovic frame the leads in luminous closeups and full-body shots that convey a rich physicality, and Watts and Dillon that have such charged presence that they avoid any hint of didacticism or moral superiority to their lower-class characters. That these actors’ intense personalities exist beyond the narrow confines of their actions is the whole point — not because they are superstars, but because they can manifest, to full magnitude, everybody’s lost potential.
For both Melissa and Richie, their tender lovemaking (the camera lingering long on their slow, sensual intertwinings) alone reaffirms what is still vital to them. When Mel discovers she is pregnant, they are overjoyed, Richie having believed he was “shooting blanks,” and soon they’re combing thrift-shop aisles for baby outfits. But when crisis hits and they are kicked out of the rundown motel they call home, the forces of stagnation and unchanging hopelessness, as though waiting in the wings, swoop in to repossess their souls. They are forced to move in with Mel’s mother (Tess Harper, pitch-perfect in her combination of offhand affection and alcoholic neglect) and her numerous foster kids and sullen boyfriend; meanwhile, Mel’s old boyfriend and former pill provider (Norman Reedus, exuding loose-cannon menace) has been stalking her relentlessly.
As with “Sherrybaby,” Collyer makes films about people whose class and context severely limit their options. Inspired by Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Nickled and Dimed,” she here creates characters who are neither intrinsically poor nor congenitally addictive, but intelligent, interesting individuals trapped in situations that admit little freedom or fulfillment of promise. Like the exotic birds dotting Florida’s commercially razed landscape, they perch uncomfortably in a soulless no man’s land of precarious survival.