Early on in the excellent new indie drama "Sunlight Jr.," a thunderstorm turns the Florida sky a low-hanging gray. A car runs out of gas. A couple on their last dime are stranded — on the roadside and in lives as empty of promise as that tank.
The scene is a modern-day reality and "Sunlight's" central metaphor. Filmmaker Laurie Collyer uses a conspiracy of hardships to set the tone for this bittersweet romance.
The film stars Naomi Watts and Matt Dillon as Melissa and Richie, the down-market lovers who will take us into a world of suburban decay where the American Dream is reflected in the broken glass of bankrupt stripmalls. How to put food on the table and gas in the tank define their days. Dillon and Watts infuse their performances with so much empathy, you can't help but wish those days were somehow a little easier.
They are not. A motorcycle accident at 19 left Richie wheelchair-bound and on the dole. Melissa is in a dead-end job at the Sunlight Jr., a mini-mart that makes 7-Eleven seem posh. They live in a rundown motel, and too much of Richie's disability check goes to the dive bar down the street. But somehow they are happy. Melissa's violent ex ("The Walking Dead's" Norman Reedus) shows up often enough to let us know that as bleak as things might seem, life with Richie is an improvement, emotionally if not financially.
The film is the latest from a writer-director who is making working-class struggles something of a specialty. "Sunlight" follows Collyer's feature debut in 2006 with "Sherrybaby," motherhood and addiction vying for Maggie Gyllenhaal's blue-collar girl.
This is a more sure-handed film. And in a strange way slightly more hopeful, though Collyer's definition of upbeat is not exactly silver linings, more like lead.
A series of life-changing events send the story on its downward slide, primarily Mel's discovery that she is pregnant. Against all odds, they are excited; the idea of a baby makes them into dreamers for a moment. But the filmmaker is not through stacking the deck against them. A lost job, a missed opportunity, an unexpected medical bill later and the couple are forced to move back in with Melissa's mother, Kathleen, a wonderfully ragged Tess Harper.
One of Collyer's strengths is her detailed way of sketching out the hard truths of broken lives. The small pleasures of a drunken sack race in the motel parking lot, the desperate acts undertaken to get a few extra dollars. It's never better drawn than at Kathleen's, a house cluttered by failure and foster kids — a portrait of Melissa's likely future; of what barely getting by in 2013 looks like.
Director of photography Igor Martinovic, production designer Jade Healy and costume designer Amanda Ford get the specifics of poverty just right. That sense of authenticity carries through every aspect of the film.
Though this is an emotionally driven movie, it never drifts into melodrama. Collyer is as pragmatic in her approach as her characters. But it is Dillon and Watts' nuanced portrayals that make "Sunlight's" darkness so appealing. The actors bring a tenderness to Richie and Melissa's relationship, a sweetness to the sex that defies their difficulties.
Watts, who is coming off an Oscar nomination this year as the tsunami survivor in "The Impossible," continues to do her best work when the role calls for grit: most notably, "Eastern Promises" in 2007, "21 Grams" and another Oscar nomination in 2003. In Melissa, the actress peels back the layers, her eyes darting between determination and despair, her face as lank as her hair. Something as simple as the way she holds a cigarette can define the tension in a moment.
Meanwhile, Dillon continues to be a surprise, moving beyond the bad-boy heartthrob of his "Rumble Fish" and "The Outsiders" early days into such a fine character actor. As Richie is hit by one setback after another, he internalizes the pain so literally you take the punches with him.
MPAA rating: None
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Playing: Laemmle's Royal Theatre, West Los Angeles