American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Naomi Watts is 45. Matt Dillon is 49. At first glance, they are both too mature by at least a decade—not to mention too movie-star pretty—to completely pull off their roles of Melissa and Richie, a lovey-dovey pair of down-on-their-luck Floridians trying to better their miserable lives while stuck in a bleak strip-mall wasteland in "Sunlight Jr."
But at least the actors prove surprisingly compatible as a couple, providing welcome respite during what is an aggressively downbeat primer on the working poor. To their credit, they never condescend to their characters or their circumstances even if Watts can't quite completely mask her innate smarts.
Filmmaker Laurie Collyer ("Sherrybaby") uses the rocky romance as a bait-and-switch tactic for her unvarnished depiction of a burgeoning underclass that certain politicians—the ones who rail against raising the minimum wage while supporting cuts in school meal programs and food stamps—would dismiss as moochers depending on government-sponsored handouts.
Back in the '50s and '60s, British cinema specialized in a brand of social realism known as kitchen-sink dramas that focused on marginalized blue-collar types. This hard slice of reality, however, is more a Styrofoam takeaway-container drama. There is the public transportation that never comes, the worry that a sudden illness will lead to an exorbitant emergency-room bill and the depressing dinginess of a dark bunker of a bar when the door opens and the sun streaks in briefly.