A difficult film to watch, Sunlight Jr. aims to show a few days in the lives of its working class, poor protagonists.
Show them it does. We understand why these characters spend money on bad habits, instead of saving to improve their lot in life; they need as much entertainment as they can get.
Even without explosive conflict between them, we also understand how Kathleen (Tess Harper) has influenced her daughter, Melissa (Naomi Watts), which further means we know why Melissa doesn’t have the necessary skills to change her path. And why Cody (Casey Cook) is equally unlikely to improve her station.
We feel the weight of Melissa’s decisions at the end of Sunlight Jr. It doesn’t matter that she actually has choices; it only matters that we know why she doesn’t see them.
All of which is to say, Sunlight Jr. accomplishes its principle objective: showing us the conditions that make poverty so toxic, so generational.
Writer/Director Laurie Collyer focuses on her theme, never lets up from it, never includes unnecessary scenes, and thereby paces her movie well.
She also resists the urge to portray her characters as victims. They are sympathetic, but they are often their own enemies. How different might Sunlight Jr, the store, have been for Melissa if she stood up to her boss earlier? If she reported his bad behavior? Or if she started hunting for another job the moment he hired her? How much better might Richie’s (Matt Dillon) situation have been if he’d taken classes to increase his skill set, rather than wallowing in his misery?
Yet Collyer doesn’t outwardly blame her characters either, because, much like 12 Years a Slave, she is analyzing a corrupt system. Collyer shows the difficulty of self-improvement, shows the necessity of prioritizing basic needs over fulfillment.
The film still makes some minor missteps. First, Melissa’s boss, Edwin (Antoni Corone), is a caricature from whom we see no redeeming qualities. He never feels real, unlike the rest of the characters.
I also question the decision to cast A-List (Watts) and B-List (Dillon) stars. It’s not that Watts and Dillon struggle to portray their characters. Both give powerful performances, especially Dillon, that intermittently fill us with hope, angst, regret, fear and longing, the same emotions that overwhelm their characters.
The problem is in context, not performance. We have seen both of these actors in so many roles over so many years that they make their characters too recognizable. Watts, for instance, is a tad too clean, a tad too physically perfect, a tad too dignified for the part. She is too famous to disappear into the character.
Yet, both casting and Edwin’s character development are minor flaws. Sunlight Jr. is an empathetic theme-based narrative. It isn’t extraordinary and it is hard to watch, but it is effective.