Life is difficult. Life is mundane. Life is, against all odds, beautiful, if you have the right people to lean on and if you know where to look. Sunspot, the feature-length debut of writer-director Brian Mihok, follows River (Joelle Montoya), a young woman with a messy past who decides to right a wrong in her local neighborhood with the help of friends Pete (J Brian) and Sharky (Rivera Reese). The three of them are low on cash, living life one day at a time. “I’ve never been to a doctor,” River says at one point, nonchalantly. Life has been hard on her, but it hasn’t broken her.
Mihok’s film is inspired by low-budget, naturalistic dramas in the New American style. He has an eye for setting and does a good job constructing interesting characters to populate his vision for working-class New Jersey. It’s hard to say much happens in Sunspot; it’s as slice-of-life as a movie like this can get. For the most part, River flows between people and places as they come to her. She interacts with friends and family. Eventually, she sets out to solve the main “investigation,” but even then, her world moves at the pace she’s set.
Thankfully, Montoya proves a solid anchor as River. The character is reserved, but Montoya never goes too low-key with it, which is a common pratfall in such indie dramas. Even when she’s hanging out and pondering the big questions — like the existence of aliens and humanity’s inherent absurdity — with a random Uber driver, it’s never too clichéd.
Mostly, though, Sunspot is commendable for Mihok’s cohesive craftsmanship. He takes advantage of location shooting to create a vivid, recognizable environment. This is working-class America. To our pop-culture, screen-addled eyes, the reality of what the world looks like versus what we see dolled up in movies and social media seems inherently downtrodden. That’s not really the case, though. This isn’t a broken world. This is somewhere real people live, dream, die. They make beauty where they can find it, and Mihok does a strong job capturing River’s small corner of the world with arresting images and thoughtful camerawork.
As an exercise in tone and character, Sunspot succeeds, and serves as a great debut for those involved.