MRR Review: Sunlight Jr.

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A Florida couple deals with an unexpected pregnancy while holding minimum wage jobs.
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MRR Review: "Sunlight Jr

Rating: Unrated
Length: 90 minutes
Release Date: November 15, 2013
Directed by: Laurie Collyer
Genre: Drama

"Sunlight Jr." is definitely not a fairy tale. In fact, with its gritty, unapologetic approach, Laurie Collyer's drama might be the exact opposite of escapism. The plot explores the lives of the working class in the United States, revealing tenuous existences that hinge precariously on unrewarding jobs and random luck. While not the kind of fluffy, feel-good entertainment that most people would choose for a lighthearted movie night, Collyer's film is an important and provocative piece of cinema.

Melissa (Naomi Watts) works at a struggling convenience store called Sunlight Jr., located in the Sunshine State. She's dating Richie (Matt Dillon), a man whose professional options are limited. A past motorcycle accident has left Richie without the full use of his legs. To cope with his meager disability paychecks and life's routine disappointments, Richie relies on alcohol as an easy escape. It seems Melissa is used to dealing with alcoholism, since her mother (Tess Harper) also seeks refuge from her hardships in dim bars and cheap drinks.

Into this grim world comes a ray of sunshine. Melissa learns that she's pregnant. Although Melissa and Richie already have trouble taking care of themselves, they're excited at the prospect of a new life. Unfortunately, it seems that this glimmer of good fortunate has tempted fate. Right on the heels of the big news, Melissa and Richie have to deal with one huge blow after another. Melissa loses her job. A medical emergency creates devastation, due to both the health problems and the bills that follow. The couple already lives in a motel room and scrambles to get by on pennies, but these events push them deeper and deeper into a downward spiral.

To complicate matters even further, Melissa has to contend with an abusive ex-boyfriend (Norman Reedus). His ominous presence circles the edges of the plot like an embodiment of all the struggles and hardships the couple has to face together.

It's a testament to the talents of Collyer, Watts, and Dillon that the movie is as watchable as it is. The plot can be harsh and unforgiving. Even as viewers root for the characters to rise above their tough circumstances, both small and large problems seem to conspire to keep Melissa and Richie stuck in a vicious cycle. However, Watts and Dillon are so warm and believable that the movie-viewing experience is still pleasurable. Even through the challenges they face, the loyalty that exists between Melissa and Richie is palpable. They may fight and quarrel, but the passion they feel for each other manages to persevere. Though nobody would say that Melissa and Richie have a traditional fairy tale romance, there's definitely a sense of inspiration in seeing love bloom and thrive in such rocky soil.

The indie drama shows Collyer's wise and unerring eye for detail. She doesn't aim for a stylized look. Instead, she shows the little moments that string together to form a life. From a lonely outpost behind a convenience store counter to the miracle of a flickering silhouette on an ultrasound screen, Cullyer finds beauty in unexpected moments. She also doesn't shy away from the sadness and bleakness of other moments.

There's a reason that impoverished characters are not usually a box office draw. Watching characters struggle to merely make the rent can be difficult. It's understandable why people prefer to sit down in front of epic stories that feature dragons, wizards, giant robots, superheroes, and daring heists. If major blockbusters aim to pull viewers out of reality for an hour and a half, then "Sunlight Jr." compels viewers to face a gritty and unrelenting version of reality. However, Collyer's film makes up for this with its thought-provoking qualities. "Sunlight Jr." shows the full potential of cinema to explore and highlight social issues and offer a voice to the voiceless.

"Sunlight Jr." has a slightly ironic title, effectively highlighting the lack of easy, breezy sunshine in the characters' lives. However, the "Jr." in the title hints at the movie's sweetest grace note, showing how Melissa and Richie both yearn to become parents. Although their lives may not be glamorous or enviable, both of them find enough love and goodness in their ordinary, difficult lives to want to pass this gift on to a new generation. This is how "Sunlight Jr." rises above melodrama or judgment to become a tender, poignant, and intelligent film about the American dream. There are no easy answers or "happily ever after" promises, but this does not make the movie any less inspiring in the end.

Rating: 3 out of 5