Actors too movie-star-ish for grim kitchen-sink drama

A minimum-wage drama, “Sunlight Jr.” is an account of people who mean well, work hard and still can’t make it. The title is a particularly bitter piece of irony, because the lives of this group of south Floridians couldn’t be less cheerful at the moment.

Sunlight Jr. is the name of the convenience store where Melissa (Naomi Watts) holds down a cashier job. It’s dull work, but she hopes to snag a place in the company’s college-placement program, if only she can withstand the lazy harassment of her manager and the threat of a transfer to the dreaded graveyard shift.

Melissa lives with Richie (Matt Dillon), a boozy paraplegic. These two make the film’s early reels promising, especially for the way writer-director Laurie Collyer (“Sherrybaby”) treats this relationship; Melissa and Richie are affectionate, clumsy, sexual.

They don’t live their lives in a smart way, but they care for each other in the midst of the truly tough hand they’ve been dealt — not his injury, but the misfortune of having been born with the notable absence of a silver spoon anywhere in the vicinity.

A variety of challenges and opportunities come their way during the movie, including the predatory behavior of Melissa’s drug-dealing ex (Norman Reedus, from “The Walking Dead”) and the dismal example of her mother (a blowsy Tess Harper).

The presence of movie stars Watts and Dillon means we won’t take any of this for documentary footage, but Collyer’s realistic method veers close to re-creating the maddening behavior of self-defeating folk in reality-TV shows.

Collyer’s sympathy for her hard-luck characters is admirable, although it’s tough to cast glamorous actors in these roles and expect her dreary, kitchen-sink world to ring completely true. The going-nowhere lives are maybe a little too easy to caricature, and the sheer misery of this trap is grueling indeed.

The only thing that truly clicks is that central relationship, its moments of unexpected tenderness and support; if only Melissa and Richie could tune out the rest of the world and just be into each other. But the rest of the world keeps intruding, and it ain’t pretty.

“Sunlight Jr.” (2 stars)

Two struggling lovers (Naomi Watts, Matt Dillon) find themselves tested at the poverty level in South Florida. The actors are game but perhaps too movie-star-ish for the material, and the dismal material is pretty grueling.

Rated: Not rated; probably R for nudity, language, subject matter.

Showing: Sundance.

More in Life

Everett’s Michael ‘Scooby’ Silva is the leader of the (dog) pack

Since 2012, he’s built a thriving business walking dogs while their owners are at work.

Still looking for that one special recipe for the holidays?

Columnist Jan Roberts-Dominguez shares her traditional recipes for cheese soup and chocolate sauce.

How to saute mushrooms to crispy, browned perfection

Various levels of heat affect our scrumptious fungus: There’s “sweating” and then there’s “sauteing.”

Bob Jepperson’s Wild Love Story

A perfect circle of sounds, pictures and storytelling from the Anacortes author.

Brutally true ‘Montauk’ parallels author’s conflicted real life

The short autofictional novel centers on a weekend tryst the narrator has with a much younger woman.

‘Shape of Water,’ ‘Big Little Lies’ lead Golden Globe nominations

“The Post” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” also collected a number of nominations.

This author is throwing a virtual party for book lovers

Jennifer Bardsley is hosting a Facebook get-together for young-adult book authors and readers.

Getting a glimpse of what’s coming as we age

Everett Public Library reading to help you understand the changes ahead in your elder years.

Bustling Dublin offers big-city sights and Irish charm

The dynamic city has a great story to tell, and people who excel at telling it.

Most Read