Sunlight Jr.: Tribeca Review

Naomi Watts
Eric Charbonneau/Invision for The Hollywood Reporter/AP Images

Naomi Watts wore a blue Erdem dress.

"When I saw it on the rack, I was sure I wouldn't wear it because I'm not great with too much busy-ness or prints," she told THR. "But I really liked it, and it's a good fit."

This sensitively observed humanistic drama features deeply moving performances by Naomi Watts and Matt Dillon.

Naomi Watts and Matt Dillon respectively portray a convenience store clerk and paraplegic who struggle under harsh financial circumstances in seedy Florida.

Naomi Watts and Matt Dillon bring impressive emotional and physical heat to Sunlight Jr., director/screenwriter Laurie Collyer’s beautifully observed character study of an unmarried couple living on the economic margins. Featuring the same humanistic qualities as the filmmaker’s last effort, Sherrybaby, this low-key gem being featured at the Tribeca Film Festival shines a sympathetic light on an ever-growing underclass that too rarely receives cinematic exposure.

Very much in love, convenience store clerk Melissa (Watts) and her paraplegic boyfriend Richie (Dillon) are barely making ends meet on his monthly disability checks and her low wages. Their harsh circumstances are immediately signaled in the opening scene, when they run out of gas on the way to bringing her to work.

Facing eviction from the run-down motel in which they live, they find their lives further complicated by Melissa’s abusive boss and her frequent run-ins with Justin (Norman Reedus, of The Walking Dead), the ex-boyfriend who keeps sniffing around now that a restraining order has been lifted.

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Collyer’s minimalist screenplay revolves such less-than-earthshaking plot elements as Melissa being consigned to the graveyard shift and the news of an unplanned pregnancy. But it beautifully conveys the intense bond between the two principal characters, their love undimmed by their poverty.

Dillon, an actor who’s played more than his share of heavies, brings a tender sweetness to his portrayal of the wheelchair-bound, hard-drinking Richie, who’s not afraid to get in a physical dust-up with the muscular Justin despite his handicap. And Watts brings a sexy intensity to her turn as the beleaguered Melissa, whose hopes of getting into a college scholarship program are consistently thwarted.

Set in a seedy underbelly of southern Florida dominated by strip malls and swap meets, the film conveys its lower-class milieu with a bracing authenticity. The lowered expectations are vividly illustrated by Melissa’s mother (an excellent Tess Harper), who runs a makeshift childcare center in her home, telling her “Richie never hit you…so you did good there.”

The film also includes--in a rarity for today’s prudish cinema--a torrid sex scene between Watts and Dillon that inevitably recalls the groundbreaking one featuring Jane Fonda and Jon Voight in Coming Home 35 years ago.

Sunlight Jr. is unblinking in its bleak depiction of its main characters’ plight. But its positive portrayal of two mature people who truly respect and care for each other provides uplifting glimmers of hope.  

(Tribeca Film Festival)

Production: Original Media, Freight Yard, Alchemedia Films

Cast: Naomi Watts, Matt Dillon, Tess Harper, Norman Reedus, Antoni Corone, Adrienne Lovette

Director/screenwriter: Laurie Collyer

Producers: Andrea Roa, Charlie Corwin, Ariel Elia

Executive producers: Dan Klabin, Fisher Stevens, William Dietrich, Simon Fawcett, Joshua Skurla

Director of photography: Igor Martinovic

Editor: Curtiss Clayton

Production designer: Jade Healy

Costume designer: Amanda Ford

Composer: J Mascis

Not rated, 90 min.