Buzz Kill: Sunlight Jr. Is the Downer in Your Eggnog

Well-made but depressing film ill-timed for the holiday season

Matt Dillon and Naomi Watts in Sunlight Jr..

Matt Dillon and Naomi Watts in Sunlight Jr.

Movies about hopeless losers living below the poverty level don’t pack much entertainment value for the holiday season, and despite the presence of Naomi Watts and Matt Dillon, a depressing dirge called Sunlight Jr. seems headed for a box office burial long before anybody brings out the eggnog.

They play a pair of trailer-trash lovers so poor they can’t even afford a trailer. Melissa and Richie live in a seedy Florida motel that ought to be condemned by the health department, eking out an existence on her meager hourly wages as a cashier in a crummy mini-mart called Sunlight Jr. and his monthly disability check. When their car breaks down in a rainstorm, she arrives late for work, soaking wet, enraging her boss, and he is left on the highway to chug along in his wheelchair. It doesn’t seem possible, but things do get worse. Melissa’s abusive, drug-dealing ex-boyfriend starts hanging around Sunlight Jr., getting her fired, and Richie’s workman’s compensation is reduced to half. Broke and despondent, they find themselves evicted for back rent. What an inopportune time to welcome an unplanned pregnancy.

For a while, love conquers misery, even though they move in with Melissa’s mother (Tess Harper), a lush who lives with a castigating, foul-mouthed man and takes in foster children she feeds with food stamps. Laurie Collyer’s relentlessly frank writing and direction bring out an unbearably painful realism in the two leads. But eventually, the suffering becomes an ordeal for the audience. Given their physical limitations in bed, their daily doldrums aren’t even enlivened much in the sex scenes. The point is that love is just not always enough. There are limits to how much Richie can do to take care of himself, much less an unemployed wife and a growing family. When he starts to drink, Melissa knows she can’t nurse both an alcoholic with no legs and a baby. Reluctantly, they are forced to make pragmatic decisions that will affect their relationship and their future.

The realism is honorable, the acting is exemplary, and all do good work, but life among the unlucky and disenfranchised who exist without hope is not a subject that will put a glow in your heart or a smile on your face. Be forewarned: The depression is inescapable.

SUNLIGHT JR.
WRITTEN BY: Laurie Collyer
DIRECTED BY: Laurie Collyer
STARRING: Norman Reedus, Naomi Watts and Matt Dillon
RUNNING TIME: 90 min.
RATING: 2/4