' Cinema Romantico: Sunlight Jr.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Sunlight Jr.

Naomi Watts is a naturally beautiful woman, of course, evinced by the fact she was just recently able to portray Princess Di, regardless of the performance's quality. But Watts, unlike many of her contemporaries, is equally able to ditch the makeup (in theory) and dress down and play rough and tumble. She did it to Oscar-nominated acclaim in "21 Grams", a hard-edged performance I significantly valued, and she has done it again in writer/director Laurie Collyer's followup to 2006's "Sherrybaby." Though her natural Wattsness may initially cause her to stand out, ultimately she is believable as an under-educated woman traipsing everywhere in a hideous canary yellow polo she wears to her job behind the counter at a central Florida convenience store called Sunlight Jr.


The title, of course, is meant to be ironic. There seems to be little sunlight in the lives of Melissa (Watts) and her boyfriend Richie (Matt Dillon), disabled and bound to a wheelchair. He makes vague references to a prior life of good money in construction, but makes just as vague a reference to spending it all away. These are not people who talk in absolutes. These are people who talk in lax Dollar Store cliches - "Don't make a federal case out of it." They live in a grimy one room motel, the sweat of humidity imbued in the sheets on the bed. They can hardly afford gas for the car, so much so that Richie covertly wheels out in the middle of the night to siphon some from a neighboring car. Whatever it takes.

This might make it sound as if "Sunlight Jr." is another indie film intent on simmering the viewer in the characters' crushing depression as a means to illustrate the unreachable nature of the so-called American Dream for so many, and that is there, but then listen closely to the soundtrack. It is scored entirely by J. Mascis, the frontman of Dinosaur Jr., and Collyer chooses to serve the majority of her film with Mascis's music for accompaniment. It is sorrowful only in moments, mostly choosing for aural optimism, even in situations that appear less than optimistic.

Mascis's score is matched by Watts and Dillon, who for all the drudgery they are made to endure, still convince as a couple in love, carnally and emotionally, even if their emotions might not reach enlightened intellectual plains. They argue, but the arguments are born of realistically difficult situations and all the fear they entail. Inevitably Melissa becomes pregnant, and when she rushes to the hospital in a scary emergency, though it turns out to be false alarm, Richie conveys concern for his wife but also disbelief at her fiscal irresponsibility. When you cook on a hot plate and fish expired peanut butter out of the trash, how can you afford emergency room visits?

And that ultimately becomes the characters' struggle within each of themselves - not only if it's feasible for them to raise a child, but is it responsible? In fact, we see Melissa's mother raising (neglecting) a gaggle of foster kids, and wonder if the same fate awaits her daughter. Melissa sees it too. Sure, sure, Richie relentlessly promises that he will take care of her, but this is empty rhetoric with passionate delivery. And they both know it.

The trajectory of the film is "predictable", except that it's predictable to the characters too, and their journey becomes about recognizing its own end. Thus, "Sunlight Jr." concludes with a scene of genuine tenderness, but also genuine dread. Where do they go? The movie doesn't pretend to know the answer. Neither do the characters.

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