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.

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