Film Review – Sunlight Jr.
“…for better or worse, in sickness and in health, ‘til death do us part…”
How often do people focus on the “better” and “health” portion of their marriage vows, and ignore the “worse,” “sickness,” and “death” parts? That’s the true test of a relationship. It’s all flowers and butterflies when things are going well, but what happens when crap hits the fan? Some couples cut their losses and go their separate ways, while others try to stick together through the thick and thin. Writer/director Laurie Collyer’s Sunlight Jr. attempts to look at two lovers put through the ultimate test, and then pushes it just a little further to see where their breaking point is. Somber and desperate, it’s a narrative stripped so far to the bone it becomes difficult to watch during certain stretches. I can’t deny the qualities it exhibits, but I’m not so sure this is an experience I want to revisit anytime soon.
Richie (Matt Dillon) and Melissa (Naomi Watts) love each other passionately, but their circumstances have put them in a very difficult position. Melissa works at a small convenience store, and has to beg her manager for extra hours. Richie was once a construction worker, but an accident left him in a wheelchair and with no form of an income. Richie spends his days drowning his anger in alcohol and self-pity, while Melissa tries her best to remain strong and optimistic. But their living situation has made things tough. With little money, they have to live in a low-rent motel, and drive a jalopy for a car. They try to take small steps to improve their lives, but constantly worrying about having food on the table causes strain between them.
Both Naomi Watts and Matt Dillon are excellent in their roles. Their characters appear to be good people, but living one step away from the streets has certainly taken a toll. Their faces are lined with wear and tear, and their constant bickering comes from a place of frustration instead of hate or anger. The only joy they get comes when they make love, as it is the only time they can mentally escape. This proves to be problem when Melissa becomes unexpectedly pregnant. How are they supposed to take care of a baby if they can barely manage to take care of themselves? Added to that is Melissa’s ex-boyfriend Justin (Norman Reedus), who has started to stalk Melissa at her job, and you have a couple facing major life choices, with possible rippling effects.
Collyer’s script has been whittled down to the bare essentials. It’s about these people at this time under these circumstances. There is no fluff, no easy outs, and nothing is played for cheap melodrama. When these characters get upset, we feel it reverberate off the screen. The camera has a very direct approach. There is nothing fancy about the cinematography; it’s as gritty and realistic as the story it’s trying to capture—so gritty and desperate that it acts as a detriment to the film. As great as the acting is, the plot shoves such miserable and disheartening obstacles in front of the characters that it becomes damn near unbearable. I understand this is what Collyer was possibly going for, but it’s taken to such lengths, without any type of levity for the viewer. It goes from bad to worse very quickly with little to no relief along the way.
Even worse is that much of the trouble could have been avoided if Melissa and Richie made smarter choices. I tend to believe that a person’s success (or failure) has much to do with their drive for happiness. For our lovebirds, their hole was dug partly by themselves. Richie tries to get help, but when confronted with building a life while stuck in a wheelchair, his focus wanders off toward the bottle. Melissa hates her job and her manager, but smokes while working and even has Richie help customers while she goes and takes a nap. Yes, their situation is a bad one, but a few small changes could help their predicament dramatically. This is probably how they ended up where they are in the first place, but it’s tiring to see them point fingers at each other for the entire length of the film. All the arguing in the world isn’t going to give them a higher-paying job.
Melissa and Richie are definitely made for each other, as they are the only ones who can stand each other’s faults and eccentricities. Sunlight Jr. is a love story unlike most, where love is put through a hardship in the most stressful of ways. The acting is without a doubt fantastic, but it is so heavy, so solemn, and so discouraging. Hope is already thin, but is shaved down further to the point of nonexistence. If this film was our significant other, I wonder how long it would take before we pack our things and walk out the door.