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Review: Doesn't get any darker than locally filmed 'Sunlight Jr.'

Naomi Watts is Melissa and Matt Dillon plays Richie in Sunlight Jr.
Naomi Watts is Melissa and Matt Dillon plays Richie in Sunlight Jr.
Published Nov. 12, 2013

By Steve Persall

Times Movie Critic

Laurie Collyer's Sunlight Jr. tells a depressing tale, set in an unnamed corner of Florida where strip malls and saloons drain minimum wages. Where food is stretched, gas is siphoned and Oxycontin is currency.

It's grim but, hey, it's home.

Collyer filmed Sunlight Jr. in Pinellas County nearly two years ago and at the very least the movie's interesting for the chance of spotting a familiar motel, bus stop or dive bar where these unfortunate lives play out. People are down so long that bottom looks like up, if that won't spoil the unhappy ending.

There are two intensely professional performances at the heart and soul of Sunlight Jr., from A-minus list actors fully investing themselves in bringing the gloom. Oscar nominees Naomi Watts and Matt Dillon play their characters' distresses subtler than Collyer's screenplay presents them.

Watts plays Melissa; the movie is named for the convenience store where she tenuously holds a job she despises. But she can score food before it hits the Dumpster, if she's nice to the boss (Antoni Corone), who's either trying to fire or seduce her.

Melissa's latest speed bump in life is the expiration of a restraining order on Justin (Norman Reedus), an ex-boyfriend dabbling in shanty real estate and dealing prescription pills. Justin's hanging around the Sunlight Jr. store, acting crazy. Melissa's mother (Tess Harper) — who's a Steve Wilkos show all to herself — won't help because she lives in one of the shanties.

At least Melissa has Richie (Dillon), and his disability checks after being waist-down paralyzed in a work accident. Richie fixes anything electronic except computers, so side jobs are slim. Mostly he drinks at Boardwalk Tavern and grumbles about Justin hanging around, acting crazy. (Reedus is good at acting crazy.)

One thing Richie and Melissa still enjoy is sex. After one particularly well-photographed encounter, she's pregnant, which they literally can't afford. The remainder of Sunlight Jr. is what you would correctly guess, pegging each conflict to erupt and a decision about Melissa's pregnancy to be made. The actors are so good that you wish Collyer offered them a richer arc to play, rather than just a topic.

Steve Persall can be reached at persall@tampabay.com of (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall on Twitter.

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