Throughout Neil LaBute’s compacted little exercise in frustrated embitterment, Some Velvet Morning, the camera seems not to move more than two or three feet away from either of his two players. Frequently, it’s closer, measuring each twist of phrase issuing from the lips of Stanley Tucci and Alice Eve as though the filmmaker were some kind of linguistic researcher. Indeed, the Brooklyn brownstone in which these two wage their real-time conversational combat looks like a lab. Scraped clean of any detritus, it offers only soothing white walls and meaningless, personality-less art. While Tucci and Eve—here named Fred and Velvet, but they may as well be called Older Man and Younger Woman—bicker and tease and rail at each other, the generic nature of their dispute becomes ever more clear; they’re as free of context as the bland furnishings surrounding them.
Fred is a lawyer who arrives unexpectedly at Velvet’s brownstone one fine day, to her just visible annoyance. She’s not sure why he’s there, with suitcases, when she hasn’t heard from him for so long. He has an agenda, but would apparently only give that up under black-site interrogation, so determined is he to play word games with his uncomfortable hostess. Some Velvet Morning, which had its world premiere at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival, teases out their past with a scrap here, and a scrap there. His plans are unstated. She has a lunch date on her schedule, one she’d like to make. Fred’s manner is midtown brusque, while she’s a study in possibly medicated languor (the opening credits play over a single out-of-focus shot of her lounging on a couch like a model in a Romantic painting). The difference in Fred and Velvet’s expectations establishes an immediate tension that LaBute exploits and explodes with precision over the next 80 or so minutes.
But for that opening shot, LaBute (who both wrote and directed) keeps his technique as invisible as possible here; to their credit, neither Tucci nor Eve uses this as an excuse for thespian games. No music intrudes on this acutely observed exercise. The film essentially charts the ups and downs of Fred and Velvet’s verbal power struggle, one that elides the sadism that has characterized some of LaBute’s previous film and theater work, while retaining that predatory view of human relationships that keeps one watching with growing unease. Some Velvet Morning ultimately turns on a jaw-socker of a conclusion that serves as a pin to the balloon of tension that had been growing until then. The release is potent, but it also leaves a sense of deflation, as though everything prior had served as little more than setup.
There are no surprises to be found in Laurie Collyer’s wan, risible Sunlight Jr., a story about down-and-outers scrabbling for the crumbs broken off the American Dream. It’s a drama that strives for the holy grail of those American indie films not interested in breaking new stylistic ground: authenticity. In pursuit of that goal, Collyer ticks off a laundry list of the weights dragging down the lives of the working poor, from drug and alcohol abuse to the lack of health care or decent jobs and a tattered social safety net that barely deserves the name. It’s a worthy goal, but here it doesn’t translate into engaging drama.
Naomi Watts and Matt Dillon play Melissa and Richie, a couple who have shacked up in one of those end-of-the-line Florida motels while they try and figure out how to get through the day. Melissa works at a bottom-rung convenience store, but she’s a lousy employee, even by low Kevin Smith standards. Richie, a former construction worker who’s now in a wheelchair, seems to get by on disability checks. Things are desperate for the two of them: Melissa brings expired food home from the store, while Richie siphons the occasional gallon or two of gas. The film only tracks them over a short number of days, but there’s little indication that we’ve missed much by viewing the two through such a narrow aperture.
Collyer, who also wrote the screenplay, shows little sense of her characters outside the conditions of their poverty. They rock back and forth from all-out love to vein-popping fury, the problems in their relationship stoked by the occasional interruption of Justin (Norman Reedus), a skeevy drug dealer and Melissa’s ex. There might have been a story here, with these two hopeless but still somehow optimistic people lost amidst the deadening Florida strip mall sprawl.
But Collyer never locates the core of her story, or even a consistent tone. The plot feels a thing of happenstance from the start, and Watts and Dillon’s performances seem equally haphazard and rootless. This is the filmmaker’s first feature since 2006’s addiction drama Sherrybaby, which shares with the new one a movie-of-the-week quality. But at least Sherrybaby had the motor of an inspired turn by Maggie Gyllenhaal pushing it along. Without any similar source of energy, Sunlight Jr limps along from one poorly conceived scene to the next, its characters as adrift as the audience.
Sunlight Jr. (2013)
Some Velvet Morning