Naomi Watts’ skin looks too good. Her teeth are too white. Her body is smooth and supple, and her skin is golden. This character lives on fast food, probably never goes to the dentist, smokes, drinks beer out of a can, and lives on the very precipice of total oblivion at all times. Naomi Watts is an excellent actress, and I have always found her work very engaging (and Sunlight Jr. is no exception). She’s very good here, especially in her scenes with Matt Dillon. Boy do these two feel like a real couple. So real that you feel like you know them. You have certainly met them in real life. But her clean and fresh good looks were not telling the story the film wanted to be telling. I may be making too big a deal out of it. Our first encounter with Watts in the film is her in her tiny bathroom, teasing her hair while looking in the mirror, all before taking said teased hair and pulling it back into a ponytail. I liked that detail: Teasing your hair gives it lift and body which will be noticeable even when pulled into a ponytail. That’s real. So from the get-go, we see a woman who is “getting it up” for her public face, even if her public is just the customers at the convenient store. But she still looks too pampered. Think of the equally naturally gorgeous Robin Wright in The Pledge, and how her transformation was not of the “Oh let me ugly myself up” condescending variety, but an understanding of what a certain level of poverty, poor nutrition and grinding financial uncertainty will do to a person’s skin/teeth/hair texture.
Sunlight Jr. is the story of a couple of Bad Days in the life of Richie (Matt Dillon) and Melissa (Watts). Richie used to work construction before an accident left him disabled. He is confined to a wheelchair now, living on meager disability checks, and trying to keep his spirits up. Melissa is the breadwinner, which, considering her job (she’s a cashier at a grungy convenient store called “Sunlight Jr.”) isn’t saying much. The whole “most Americans are a paycheck or two away from being homeless” is seen its most dire light in Sunlight Jr.. Richie and Melissa live in a ratty pay-by-the-week motel. They have a hot plate, but don’t use it. Their car is a clunker. When Melissa has to catch the bus home from her job, she waits forever. The other denizens of the motel are damn near transients, living complacently in a twilight of booze and chaos. (My favorite scene in the entire film felt like a throwaway: Richie, who doesn’t work, is called outside by his obese neighbor, to hang out in the parking lot with a bunch of other wrecks, and Richie organizes a pillow race. Great scene, energetically filmed, strange, chaotic, and unlike any other scene in the picture. Director/writer Laurie Collyer tapped into something in that pillow case scene. How did it come about? Spur of the moment? Or scripted? I would love to know, because its energy/feel/look/mood is unique in the film.)
At work, Melissa is sexually harassed by her horrendous boss, who takes a girlie mag to the bathroom and jerks off in the middle of the day, announcing his intentions. He’s manipulative and horrible to Melissa, and there’s clearly a sublimated sexual desire there. She’s a pretty blonde. Therefore she must be punished. Melissa shows some ambition and tries to ask further about this college enrollment program that the company will aid with, but he gives her the runaround. It’s infuriating to witness. He cock-blocks her desire to move forward and out of the fluorescent-lit hellhole that is that convenient store. Meanwhile, you really get the sense that she is trapped behind that counter. Her ex-boyfriend Justin (played by Boondock Saint Norman Reedus) stalks her, and shows up there during her shifts. She can’t get away from him. He is legitimately frightening. Her boss then makes the move to “put her on graveyard”, which strikes terror in her heart. “I’ll be raped or killed if you put me on graveyard,” she tells her boss, and having seen just a bit of that store, you don’t think she’s exaggerating.
Melissa comes from a terrible background: absent dad and actively alcoholic mother, played with Gorgon-like specificity by Tess Harper, who waddles around her awful bedbug-ridden house wearing a sleeveless muumuu, drinking some sort of cocktail out of a clear plastic kiddie cup. Melissa’s mother takes in foster kids in order to get money from the State. There are about five of them, rampaging through the house, and it’s an awful spectacle. Sure, yay, it’s great they’re not in some orphanage, but you can’t help but think that an orphanage would be preferable to being exposed to this monster of a woman. The kids sleep on mattresses up against the wall, are covered in bed bug bites, and do nothing but watch television and eat junk food. Tess Harper, with her blazing blue eyes, and ratty hair, does not play up this woman’s ugliness of spirit: it’s something she inhabits and exhibits. You don’t even want to look at her directly because you know she will start to manipulate you immediately. It’s a great little performance by one of my favorite actresses.
Melissa and Richie may have nothing going for them, except dreams of maybe signing up for a college course, and maybe getting a job fixing electronics, and maybe getting their own apartment … but what they do have going for them is a true bond, which contains both sparking chemistry and the ability to laugh at themselves. There’s a great scene early on when Richie drives Melissa to work, and she admits that her ex-boyfriend has been “stalking” her again. Richie is concerned for 2.3 seconds and then goes to Pissed Off. He will put a bullet through this guy’s head. He will wipe the floor with this guy. If Justin does anything to Melissa, he will have to answer to Richie. Melissa tries to calm the situation down, but Richie is on a roll with the threats. Finally, he says something so superhero-ish that Melissa’s only reaction is silence, and then suddenly, you see her crack up, which she tries to hide, turning her face to the window. Richie glances over at her, sees the laughter, and then cracks up himself.
All I want to say is is that I want to see more such moments of subtlety and truth in films. It occurs in one shot, so there’s no manipulation. You’re watching two people behave/react/listen in real time. As I said, that moment happens early on. It happens before we see the two of them having sex, and witness how their bond manifests itself when the clothes come off (i.e.: it’s hot, passionate, connected, and loving). I knew everything I needed to know about the two of them from her moment of cracking up, and him realizing that he’s behaving a bit ridiculously and cracking up himself. In such a small moment of behavior, I was on their side. I got why they were together. I hoped the best for them.
But, you know, this is a brutal world and things do not go well. The problem here is not within the couple. They have as good a shot of “making it” as any other bozos who fall in love. The problem is in society itself, and the class hierarchy, and the looming maw of poverty and getting totally Lost. The fear is always there. The possibility of getting a leg up is just flat out nonexistent. This is reality.
Something’s off in the script, though. There’s a lukewarm quality to some of it, mixed with a kind of pleased-with-itself poignancy (the final exchange of the film being a perfect example: it would pack a killer punch in a short story, but in a film it feels both obvious and also not-enough). You can’t avoid the larger societal implications, about lack of health insurance, lack of opportunities, and how people go down the drain in this brutal society. It’s all there. Despite Mel and Richie’s good intentions, there’s just too much against them.
Matt Dillon shows yet again that he is one of the most reliable and appealing leading men in American cinema. His work does not seek to be congratulated, and it never has. He’s just flat out good. He’s good in all the ways he needs to be good: good at character development, good at script analysis, good at building an arc – both for the character and the story. What can I say, the guy is a pro. Richie is totally appealing, and yet you can see the cracks there. You can feel the draw towards alcoholism, even though it’s somewhat under control (more because of lack of funds than anything else). This guy is a hair’s breadth away from Letting Go and plummeting into the deep twilight of the underclass, which we can already see has occurred in his pillow-case-racing fellow motel dwellers. The one thing Richie has going for him is his relationship with Melissa. It rises him above, it makes him aspirational. He is a natural provider (in his heart, anyway). And yet he’s not providing jack shit to this relationship or its future. The two live in a perpetually anxious present.
Sunlight Jr. is frustrating. It sometimes feels strangely airless and dead. And then, in flashing moments that exhilarate, even as they reveal the depressing underbelly, it proves itself to be 100% alive.