When used correctly, misery can be a refreshing and cathartic tool in cinema (think of Bicycle Thieves, Bright Star, or Grave of Fireflies); it can be an excuse for pent up emotions to be released by means of an art form. It’s good to feel things when you watch a movie, whether that be mounting joy, genuine sorrow or good old fashioned entertainment, a movie’s job is to make individuals react.
Misery in the sense that Sunlight Jr. used it was none of the above. It wasn’t sad or therapeutic, it wasn’t haunting, it didn’t cause any shed tears: it was simply miserable.
Sunlight Jr., despite the misleading title, is by no means an uplifting tale about how good people can turn their lives around and persevere. Melissa (Naomi Watts) is an employee at a local gas station and living with boyfriend (Matt Dillon) who is also paraplegic. They’re scraping the bottom of the barrel of minimum wage and poverty with their love and affection being the only true comfort to them. It’s neither an exciting life nor one holding much promise but it’s the one they have and they’ve learned to make the best of it.
Melissa learns she’s pregnant and despite their love, despite their want and need to be able to raise this baby, they’re lives begin a quick decline. Her job is threatened, her old abusive boyfriend (Norman Reedus) returns into her life and their modest life they’ve been content with begins to evaporate.
Naomi Watts and director Laurie Collyer are the saving graces of this film. Colleyer directs with an eye made for big budget and better material, and Watts is always dependable.
The problem is that while Watts is strong and gives a poignant and subtle performance, her face able to convey the most menial of emotions with a simple raise of an eyebrow, the shortcoming is that she, along with the Matt Dillon and Norman Reedus, are royally miscast.
Dillon simply isn’t a strong enough actor for the role and would have benefitted if his and Reedus’s roles have been reversed, Reedus having proven his worth before.
This is a movie with a lot of ideas and a lot of messages that they’re trying to convey and fall short with just about all of them.
They want to add to social commentaries about the real lives of individuals in lowly situations who end up being a statistic rather than a contributing part of humanity; the film wants to comment on preconceptions of who people are because of where they work and how they live, yet they’re never daring enough to actually say or show as much.
It isn’t a film without its value, but there aren’t enough positive moments to outweigh the unsatisfactory outcome.
It’s the definition of style over substance, which is a shame considering what could have been done with the material at hand.