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Naomi Watts and Matt Dillon dive into the grit of “Sunlight Jr.,” a downbeat romance set among the convenience store working class poor. And though they sometimes let us realize that they’re just a couple of movie stars, slumming, it’s still a vivid portrait of life and love among the down and out.
Richie (Dillon) dotes on Melissa (Watts), making a point of driving her to work. Only he runs out of gas. And it’s raining.
She makes her own way to her job at the Sunlight Jr. convenience store along the unfashionable, far-from-water corner of Tampa Bay. He ducks into the Boardwalk Tavern, where he doesn’t so much drown his sorrows as let the bartender know he used to make a good living.
What happened to the money?
“Life happened to it.”
Richie’s in a wheelchair. His days consist of drinking, hanging out with the assorted, colorless cast-offs of the dumpy Florida Inn where they live, and passing judgment on the morbidly obese, the addicted and the otherwise unemployable — just like him.
“You freakin’ losers!”
Melissa’s got a sexual harasser of a boss (Antoni Corone) and a thin hope of talking him into signing her up for the company’s college training program. She puts up with his bullying and piggishness. He puts up with her inattention, tardiness and lack of motivation and the violent, stalker of an ex-boyfriend (Norman Reedus) who drops by the store to make trouble.
And then Melissa gets pregnant.
Writer-director Laurie Collyer (“Sherrybaby”) revels in this environment, with its humiliating drug tests to keep a degrading job, the grimness of public transportation in places where only the poor use it and the nickel and dime struggle to survive or at least scrape together enough for a bottle so that you don’t have to think about it hangs over the performances.
Collyer peoples Melissa and Richie’s world with dead-enders, just like them. There’s Melissa’s alcoholic mom, played by Tess Harper as an utter wreck without a hint of vanity. She’s a foster parent, keeping a brood of unfortunate kids for the state in a hovel of a house. She won’t be any help.
“Richie don’t hit you. Never has. So you done good, there.”
Just getting Justin (Reedus) to leave them alone would give them a tiny break. Nothing doing.
And then there’s the couple’s naive optimism about their lives and the world they’re bringing a baby into.
“I’m going to make an awesome daddy,” Richie crows. We know better. Thick as she sometimes is, Melissa has to realize that as well.
The stars, well-preserved as they are, seem a bit long in the tooth to be playing 30something down-and-outers. They’re not showing their mileage but Watts slips up, here and there, and lets us see the smart, beautiful actress playing this maddening, lost pregnant woman.
And try as she might, Collyer cannot help but judge these people, a not-quite-fatal flaw in a movie about the down and out.
“We’ve got a plan,” Richie insists, even though we (Collyer included) know better. “And we’re going to take care of our business.”
We know better than that, too.
MPAA Rating: Unrated, with violence, sexuality, profanity
Cast: Naomi Watts, Matt Dillon, Norman Reedus, Tess Harper
Credits: Written and directed by Laurie Collyer. A Samuel L. Goldwyn release.
Running time: 1:35