Nearly 18 months after filming in Pinellas County, Laurie Collyer's Sunlight Jr. recently held its world premiere in competition at New York's Tribeca Film Festival.
Reviews were mixed, and the festival ended Sunday without Sunlight Jr. striking a U.S. distribution deal. There's still a chance that you'll someday see Collyer's movie at a theater near you, or on a home video format. A distribution deal is still being sought.
For now all we have are the divided opinions of critics who saw Collyer's tale of an impoverished couple — played by Academy Award nominees Naomi Watts and Matt Dillon — coping with addiction and unplanned pregnancy.
"Set in a seedy underbelly of southern (sic) Florida dominated by strip malls and swap meets, the film conveys its lower-class milieu with a bracing authenticity," opined Hollywood Reporter reviewer Frank Scheck.
Sunlight Jr. focuses upon Melissa (Watts) and Richie (Dillon), unmarried and living on minimum wage and disability checks. When Melissa becomes pregnant the economic noose squeezes and they're forced to move in with her alcoholic mother (Tess Harper). Melissa's menacing, drug dealing ex-boyfriend (Norman Reedus) and her abusive boss further complicate matters.
Variety reviewer Ronnie Scheib praised Watts and Dillon for creating "characters who are neither intrinsically poor nor congenitally addictive, but intelligent, interesting individuals trapped in situations that admit little freedom or fulfillment of promise.
"Like the exotic birds dotting Florida's commercially razed landscape, they perch uncomfortably in a soulless no man's land of precarious survival."
On the other hand, Popmatters.com film critic Chris Barsanti called Watts and Dillon's performances "equally haphazard and rootless," adding the movie "limps along from one poorly conceived scene to the next, its characters as adrift as the audience."
Slantmagazine.com reviewer Abhimanyu Das believed Collyer's movie leaned heavily upon "escalating misfortunes (that) end up feeling like overkill," but praised Igor Martinovic's "intimate cinematography, which offsets psychological misery with exterior brightness."
Rodrigo Perez of Indiewire.com joined the chorus of reviewers describing Sunlight Jr. as unflinchingly downbeat. Yet he deemed it "a valuable piece of work from a filmmaker who has a distinctive voice and concerns" that, after Collyer's previous films Sherrybaby and Nuyorican Dream, "could easily act as the third in a trilogy about the impoverished, the destitute and the depressed."
Perez added: "While the picture is not completely despondent, it's far, far from the feel-good film of the year and this may limit its options, even in the arthouse circuit."
Steve Persall can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow him @StevePersall on Twitter.