Laurie Collyer's Sunlight Jr. concludes the unofficial "Trampa Bay Trilogy," three movies filmed locally over six months in 2011-12, centered on aspects of Florida living that chambers of commerce don't brag about.
The strip club sexuality in Magic Mike and Spring Breakers' stylish sleaze were fantasies, while the drama of Sunlight Jr. is depressingly real.
Collyer sets her movie among Florida's decidedly have-nots, for whom sunny days are cruel ironies, in a landscape dominated by strip malls, dive bars and bus stops. Minimum-wage pay and disability checks are spent on drugs, booze, chintzy nutrition and seedy accommodations.
An unexpected pregnancy for lovers trapped in this poverty, played by Oscar nominees Naomi Watts and Matt Dillon, only complicates matters.
It isn't a pretty picture, which moviegoers can see for themselves when Sunlight Jr. opens Nov. 15 exclusively at BayWalk 20 in St. Petersburg, or now on iTunes, Amazon and other video- on-demand outlets.
Neither is the picture bright for Collyer's movie. Despite favorable reviews at its Tribeca Film Festival debut, and a cast also featuring Norman Reedus (The Walking Dead), major distributors passed on Sunlight Jr. The rights fell to savvy Gravitas Ventures, credited with more than 400 releases, none hits except on balance sheets.
Sunlight Jr. won't reach the awareness level or box office results of Magic Mike or Spring Breakers, by a long shot. Yet it's the most honest depiction of Florida life — one portion, at least — in the Trampa Bay Trilogy. Collyer is surprised it's "flying under the radar" but understands why.
"It's polarizing; people see it as bleak," she said in a telephone interview. "Movies are magical and all that, but really at the end of the day it's an industry. It's hard for a movie like Sunlight Jr. to be fully embraced by the public because it's telling a hard story, a painful story.
"But it's one I really believe in, so there you have it."
Focusing on marginalized lives is Collyer's milieu, expressed in her documentary Nuyorican Dream and Sherrybaby, which earned a Golden Globe nomination for Maggie Gyllenhaal as a reformed drug addict. After a "very comfortable" New Jersey childhood, Collyer, 46, became a peace marcher who planned to be a social worker.
"I didn't have the stamina for that, but (was) always a storyteller," she said.
Sunlight Jr. casts Watts and Dillon as Melissa and Richie, a convenience store clerk (the title is the store's name) and her paraplegic boyfriend, living hand-to-mouth in a motel. Reedus plays Melissa's stalking ex-boyfriend, an OxyContin dealer and, in a convenient twist, the landlord for her mother (Tess Harper), an alcoholic babysitter for more children than guidelines allow. Not much happens in the plot except despair, especially after Melissa learns of her pregnancy. The child is wanted but not feasible in these circumstances.
"It's a story you can tell anywhere in America right now," Collyer said. "There was something about the environment in Florida that really called to me. … That darkness in the sunshine … I like the ugly beautiful; I've been accused of that."
Sunlight Jr. was chiefly filmed on the fly in late 2011, spending only 22 days in production and just more than $706,000 in Florida, chiefly Clearwater. Primary locations included the Floridian Inn on Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard — room 103 got a trashy makeunder as Melissa and Richie's home — and a shuttered, rat-infested convenience store stocked through product placements and a couple of thousand dollars.
Nearly a quarter million dollars was paid to Floridians working in the cast and crew. More than $176,000 was rebated to the production under Florida's tax credits program, an incentive for attracting productions to the state that's currently depleted.
Collyer said Tampa Bay, specifically Clearwater, was solely a logistics selection as a locale for all this gloom, close enough to a major airport for actors, crew members and equipment to slip in and out of town.
"I actually found some parts of Florida that would've made in some ways a better backdrop," Collyer said. "They were a little more rural, like the LaBelle area (in the southwest inland)." The production briefly returned in 2012 for pickup shots in Pasco County "which, by the way, is such a hard-hit place. I mean, you talk about Pinellas but Pasco is really rough. Tragic, really."
Sunlight Jr. may be merely a footnote in the history of Tampa Bay filmmaking but Collyer is proud of it, and the faint rainbow behind all the darkness.
"I never intended to make a bleak, hopeless movie," Collyer said, "because I do feel love is really powerful, and the movie ends on that note. (Melissa and Richie) still have each other, and this love that's helping them heal. … I wanted to show that love is a miraculous thing that can exist anywhere."
Even at the bottom of society's barrel.
Steve Persall can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall on Twitter.