Sunlight Jr.Directed by Laurie Collyer

Starring Naomi Watts,

Matt Dillon

Not RatedPlaying at Quad Cinema

"Sunlight Jr." is an affecting drama set amid a hellish Floridian landscape of strip malls, sleazy motels and car-jammed commercial roads.

Writer-director Laurie Collyer treats her characters with high regard despite the fact that they're suffering through the depths of despair in this awful place.

Naomi Watts stars as gas station clerk Melissa, who is dating the unemployed and paralyzed Richie (Matt Dillon), while struggling to cope with a lecherous boss (Antoni Corone) and a stalker ex (Norman Reedus).

But the picture never wallows in sadness. In fact, Collyer is at her best when she observes the main characters carving some happiness out of despondency. Melissa and Richie live in a tiny motel room and barely afford their groceries, but they love each other. Small gestures -- cooking macaroni and cheese, Richie volunteering to drive Melissa to work, Melissa toiling on a double shift -- mean a lot. For a time, at least, that's enough.

The film taps into a particularly 21st century-brand of income inequality in a location that's in many ways defined by the strata between rich and poor. Melissa and Richie's Florida has little to do with the planned communities packed with mansions and the beaches filled with wealthy snowbirds that characterize our popular conception of the state.

The leads enhance the movie's strong humanist leanings. Dillon taps into believable strains of aggression and anxiety, borne out of a deep sense of emasculation.

But "Sunlight Jr." belongs to Watts, playing a woman who retains her dignity and sense of self-worth in spite of endless difficulties. It's work done between the lines, in the silent moments, showing us a person who refuses to crumble. There's not an ounce of flashy, actor-y pizzazz as Watts seamlessly blends into this naturalistic vision. That's why she matters. That's why she's a star.