Naomi Watts makes very interesting acting choices. From big budget extravaganzas like "King Kong" to smaller indie films like this year’s "Adore," she seems to simply do what she wants. Not all of the films are successful (whether financially or in execution), but I don’t think that matters for her. What matters is bringing to life a character that has fascinated her.
In writer/director Laurie Collyer’s small drama "Sunlight Jr.," Watts plays Missy, a thirty-something working-class woman living somewhere in middle-America who struggles in every aspect of her life. She spends her days working at a convenience store (named the "Sunlight Jr.") run by a misogynistic manager (Antoni Corone). Her shady ex-boyfriend Justin (Norman Reedus) has just figured out the restraining order on him has ended, so he keeps showing up to harass her. Her home is a cheap hotel where she lives with her wheelchair bound boyfriend Richie (Matt Dillon). And the only family she has is an alcoholic mother (Tess Harper) who is raising a handful of foster kids despite having no money to do so. When Missy discovers she is pregnant, the joy is overshadowed by problems at work and the realization that she and Richie barely have enough money to survive.
The plot in Collyer’s third film is fairly thin, and while the struggles are honest and relatable, there isn’t much going on. The pressing issue of poverty in America is the through-line here, and while the film shines some light on this, Collyer’s script doesn’t hit it hard enough. This is a slice-of-life film that doesn’t present any answers, nor does it present questions that are deep enough for us to become involved. The emotional highs and lows that Missy and Richie face are typical of this type of story, so there are no surprises here. It’s a simple tale told simply. It’s well directed and Collyer certainly gets us to feel the time and place with gritty authenticity, but there isn’t enough to draw the viewer in. The dialogue and situations are realistic, but they never plumb any new depths that offer fresh insight into their world.
That said, the actors make the film worthwhile by inhabiting their characters so well. Just watching them work is fascinating. Dillon is good in a long-awaited return to the screen, and he plays the part with a fragility that is unexpected. Watts, however, fully embodies Missy, and it’s captivating to watch her play the type of person we see all the time, but never really pay attention to. Sometimes it’s hard to forget that it’s Watts playing way against type, but she does a spectacular job at trying to get us to forget that.
For Watt’s fans and fans of good acting, this is still an interesting little film. But it’s hardly memorable, and it goes down a little too pat considering how much the subject matter could have hit harder. In "Sunlight Jr." there’s always the promise of something bigger occurring, but ultimately, it’s a small drama with small ideas told in small ways.