TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL: Laurie Collyer brought the very best out of Maggie Gyllenhaal with her feature film debut of Sherrybaby (2006), a performance that stands as one of the best of that decade. When her follow-up Sunlight Jr, was announced last year, the anticipation naturally grew to its highest peak. Having sensational actors like Naomi Watts and Matt Dillon were promising to say the least. As good as the premise sounds on paper, Collyer loses focus of her characters and delivers an uneven film that doesn’t stand next to her quiet sensation from 2006.
Telling the story of Melissa (Naomi Watts), a Quickie-mart employee that is desperate to elevate her quality of life for herself and her boyfriend Richie (Matt Dillon), that collects disability. Living in a motel room, and living off of her small hourly wage and Richie’s income, the couple that are visibly in love find more to shoot for when Melissa learns she is pregnant. When her job and living situation are put in jeopardy, with the sudden appearance of her ex Justin (Norman Reedus from AMC’s “The Walking Dead”), they will need to face things that their love may not be able to stand.
Any positives that are taken away from the film are anchored and profoundly guided by the performances of Naomi Watts and Matt Dillon. As Melissa, Watts exudes a sexy but deeply moving turn that is both contemporary and reminiscent of legendary leading ladies like Katharine Hepburn. Melissa is our heroine, ambitious and yearning for more. Unfortunately, Watts is bogged down by clichéd dialogue and often unwarranted behavior that fails to elevate the story arc. What shows Watts’ talents as an actress, is her abilities to fight through all the script’s obstacles and land herself victoriously on top of the film. Naomi Watts is incredible.
What’s more impressive than Watts is Matt Dillon who delivers his best performance since Paul Haggis’ Crash (2005). Playing the sympathy of a man you are not supposed to love while displaying some gruesome behavior, Dillon gives almost a near terrifying turn that resonates. You expect the worse from Richie, some of those thoughts never come to fruition, but with the skill and power of Matt Dillon, he’ll have you squirming in your chair. Matt Dillon may have topped his previous efforts for what he accomplishes in the film. The chemistry between Dillon and Watts are superb and it’s almost a marriage made in heaven for two brilliant actors delivering two brilliant performances. Norman Reedus’ turn is almost a carbon copy Daryl from “The Walking Dead” which does nothing extra for the film. I think Reedus is a capable actor and one that I’m a huge fan of but unfortunately doesn’t have much to do in his limited role. Unsure if we can point the finger at Reedus or our faithful screenwriter but it was hard for him to keep up standing next Watts and Dillon.
There’s no real exploration of contemporary relationships that resonate for the viewer to be affected. As much as I appreciate the attempt by Collyer, unfocused narrative structures fail to emote the reactions I think she was going for. Where she takes the final moments are not earned nor do they feel like a normal progression to that train of thought given the events prior. Perhaps a deeper look into the relationship and the events leading would have offered more of a sensation however, at just over 90 minutes, there’s not much room to move.
Sunlight Jr. has the heart in the right place but comes up short in many regards. It leaves you puzzled and doesn’t give any real resolution for you to feel satisfied. For Naomi Watts and Matt Dillon alone, their raw and luscious skills as actors will be looked upon with high regard for years to come. Two dynamic, powerful performances!