Watching Laurie Collyer's films, you can't shake the feeling of impending disaster. It's there in the characters she deploys: They're down, one mistake away from being out. But its the films themselves, too — they always seem on the verge of taking their melodrama and gloom one step past what we can bear.
Take the opening scene of Sunlight Jr.: Melissa (Naomi Watts) wakes up on a rainy day in her less-than-glamorous room at the Floridian Inn. Her boyfriend, Richie (Matt Dillon), insists on driving her to work, only to have the car sputter to a stop when it runs out of gas.
The kicker comes when Melissa begins to walk the rest of the way: The wind dismantles her umbrella before she can take more than a few steps. Even when it comes to the small things, Collyer never lets her characters catch a break — a tendency that leaves her films at risk of wallowing in their own misery.
Sunlight Jr. follows on Collyer's debut narrative feature, 2006's Sherrybaby, and the two are of a piece. The earlier film's protagonist is a heroin addict out on parole and trying to reconnect with her young daughter; in Sunlight, Melissa is a cashier at a gas-station convenience store, and she's only narrowly avoiding a life like that of the alcoholics and vagrants who are fixtures in her life.
But the two films, far from feeling repetitive, deepen each other — and they emphasize Collyer's ability to take her audience to the brink of despair before pulling it back. Presenting viewers with characters who are at once the victims and the causes of their beleaguered lives, Collyer has a rough, no-punches-pulled honesty, but also the empathy not to make them playthings in some sadistic social-realist experiment.
In Sunlight Jr., that delicate balance becomes critical when Melissa discovers she's pregnant. Just a few scenes earlier, we've watched Richie, an unemployed paraplegic who spends his afternoons drinking with other motel residents, siphoning gas from a stranger's car. Melissa, meanwhile, hopes to qualify for a college scholarship offered by her company, but her boss seems intent on keeping her grounded at her dead-end position.
In other words, neither of these two seems prepared for a child. "Good luck. Or congratulations, I guess," is one response Melissa gets to her news. Nevertheless, she and Richie celebrate and plan with giddy excitement. "I'm gonna make an awesome daddy," Richie says. "I'm gonna take care of you," he repeatedly promises Melissa.
Like Sherrybaby, Sunlight Jr. explores the troubling gap that can open up between a person's aspirations and his or her reality. But Collyer never looks down on her characters; instead, her films have the quality of a good Springsteen song. Her characters' refusal to understand the fissure between what they hope will happen and what can actually be expected derives from equal parts delusion and pride — from a lack of self-awareness, but also from a need to keep believing, however dimly, in a brighter future.
It's because of this core sensitivity toward her characters' predicaments, as well as her ability to hit just the right tone with her endings, that Collyer can overcome a sometimes shaky execution. Here, the unsteadiness includes an overwrought score by J. Mascis that on more than one occasion undercuts the leads' tender performances. Among other things, Sunlight Jr. teaches us the importance of keeping a kind heart and of sticking the landing, two things Collyer's characters could certainly benefit from bearing in mind.