On American Poverty, Sunlight Jr. Walks the Line Between Empathy and Exploitation

Matt Dillon and Naomi Watts in Sunlight Jr.
Matt Dillon and Naomi Watts in Sunlight Jr.

For depictions of American poverty, there's a fine line between empathy and exploitation. Sunlight Jr. repeatedly tiptoes on, around, and over that threshold, ultimately coming off as the socially conscious drama it sets out to be thanks to a roster of lived-in, relatable performances.

Like her last film, 2006's underseen Sherrybaby, Laurie Collyer's newest shines a light on the fiscally downtrodden by way of a struggling working woman, Melissa (Naomi Watts), a Florida gas station cashier who also supports her wheelchair-bound boyfriend, Richie (Matt Dillon). On any given day, she narrowly fends off a sexually harassing manager, a stalker ex-boyfriend (Norman Reedus), an alcoholic mother (Tess Harper) who herself scrapes by as a foster parent of 11 small children, and, most oppressively, an American infrastructure that makes it virtually impossible for the poor to succeed.

Watts's stellar performance distinguishes a film that is overburdened with welfare clichés. Even when it seems like she's stuck in a lightless tunnel, Melissa never panics, evincing a quiet make-it-work fortitude that feels convincing. Richie's receding Medicaid benefits and her minimum wage paycheck barely sustain them, but, as in life, their below-the-line status doesn't preclude happiness: The couple is ecstatic when she becomes pregnant.

People like her are interminably "getting by," so small dramas like running out of gas and walking down the highway in the rain to work (both of which happen) are just par for the course. Collyer has a keen eye for underrepresented populations, but she'd be better served in the future to scale back on the overstatement.

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