Tribeca Film Review: ‘Sunlight Jr.’

Incandescent performances and an unerring grasp of milieu distinguish this latest feature from 'Sherrybaby' helmer Laurie Collyer

Naomi Watts, Matt Dillon, Norman Reedus, Tess Harper, Antoni Corone.

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.

Tribeca Film Review: 'Sunlight Jr.'

Reviewed at Tribeca Film Festival (competing), New York, April 21, 2013. Running time: 95 MIN.

Production: An Empyrean Pictures presentation of an Original Media, Freight Yard production in association with Alchemedia Films. (International sales: CAA, Los Angeles.) Produced by Andrea Roa, Charlie Corwin, Ariel Elia. Executive producers, William Dietrich, Simon Fawcett, Joshua Skurla, Dan Klabin, Fisher Stevens.

Crew: Directed, written by Laurie Collyer. Camera (color, HD), Igor Martinovic; editor, Curtiss Clayton; music, J. Mascis; music supervisor, Jim Black; production designer, Jade Healy; costume designer, Amanda Ford; sound, Jim Morgan; re-recording mixers, Leslie Shatz, Scott Kramer; casting, Kerry Barden, Paul Schnee.

With: Naomi Watts, Matt Dillon, Norman Reedus, Tess Harper, Antoni Corone.

More Film

  • Michael B. JordanAFI Awards Luncheon, Los

    Michael B. Jordan's 'Just Mercy' Moves to Awards Season Slot

    Michael B. Jordan’s upcoming legal drama “Just Mercy” has been shifted forward three weeks from Jan. 17 to Dec. 25 for an Oscar-qualifying theatrical release. “Just Mercy” is based on the case of Walter McMillan, an African-American death-row prisoner who was exonerated in 1993 after being convicted five years earlier for a 1986 murder in [...]

  • Harry Styles to Play Prince Eric

    Harry Styles in Talks to Play Prince Eric in Disney's 'Little Mermaid'

    Harry Styles is going under the sea. The former One Direction frontman is in early negotiations to play Prince Eric in Disney’s live-action adaptation of “The Little Mermaid.” Halle Bailey will portray the Ariel, a mermaid princess who dreams of being a human, while Melissa McCarthy is playing her evil aunt Ursula. “The Little Mermaid” [...]

  • Stuber Movie

    Disney Left With a Slate of Film Flops After Fox Deal

    Is Disney having buyer’s remorse? The studio would be forgiven if it were having some regrets after absorbing 20th Century Fox, the company that once generated big box office with the likes of “Avatar,” “Life of Pi,” and “Bohemian Rhapsody.” After “Dark Phoenix” bombed earlier this summer, Kumail Nanjiani and Dave Bautista’s action comedy “Stuber” [...]

  • Taika Waititi Returning to Direct 'Thor

    Taika Waititi to Direct Marvel's 'Thor 4'

    Taika Waititi is returning to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The filmmaker will write and direct the sequel to his 2017 blockbuster “Thor: Ragnarok.” Waititi’s take on the fourth “Thor” movie puts Warner Bros.’ long-in-development “Akira” adaptation on hold indefinitely. However, the studio hopes that “Akira” can get resume production with Waititi at the helm once [...]

  • Akira

    'Akira' Production Put on Hold by Warner Bros.

    Warner Bros. has put its long-in-development “Akira” adaptation on hold indefinitely, sources tell Variety. Sources indicate that after a brief delay, the studio has pulled the plug on production indefinitely for the classic anime adaptation, which was set to begin later this fall. “Thor: Ragnarok” helmer Taika Waititi was on board to direct, and the [...]

  • Sir Elton John, David Furnish. Sir

    New Elton John AIDS Foundation Gala to be Held in the South of France

    Elton John and David Furnish are launching a new gala for the Elton John AIDS Foundation. The two will host the inaugural A Midsummer Party benefit on July 24 in the south of France at the Johnny Pigozzi’s private estate, Villa Dorane, in Cap d’Antibes. A cocktail reception will be followed by dinner, a live [...]

  • Sebastian Maniscalco Green Book

    Sebastian Maniscalco Moves Into Movies With 'Green Book' and 'The Irishman'

    As a comedian whose routines not only lampoon Italian stereotypes but demand larger-than-life performances of those cultural peccadilloes, Sebastian Maniscalco has carefully — if inadvertently — created a niche for himself as an actor. In 2018, in between selling out shows at Radio City Music Hall and Madison Square Garden, he took his first steps [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content