Naomi Watts, Matt Dillon film in Clearwater

Academy Award nominees Naomi Watts and Matt Dillon will star in Sunlight Jr., the third movie to film in Pinellas County in the past 12 months.

Sunlight Jr. follows the current hit Dolphin Tale and Steven Soderbergh’s 2012 release Magic Mike as productions using Tampa Bay locales. Writer-director Laurie Collyer previously earned fame for directing Maggie Gyllenhaal to a Golden Globe nomination for Sherrybaby.

According to a news release published Monday by, principal photography has begun. The Times reported last week that Clearwater will be the central location.

Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard isn’t sure how he feels about that.

In Sunlight Jr., Watts and Dillon will portray Melissa and Richie, a married couple living near poverty level in a rundown motel. Melissa works the graveyard shift at a nearby Sunlight Jr. convenience store while paraplegic Richie mostly stays drunk and unemployed. A hardscrabble life becomes tougher when Melissa discovers she is pregnant.

The scenario couldn’t be any more different from the squeaky clean themes and flattering representation of Clearwater in Dolphin Tale, inspired by the true story of Winter the dolphin and largely filmed at her Clearwater Marine Aquarium home.

Hibbard — a visible supporter of Dolphin Tale’s production and release — was cautious Monday when asked about Sunlight Jr.’s downbeat themes set in the city he leads.

“I’d like all of them to be glowing and marvelous stories, uplifting and all the rest,” Hibbard said in a telephone interview. “I don’t know that we can control that. What I do like is, hopefully, having some economic stimulus.”

Watts, 43, first gained critical praise for David Lynch’s 2001 puzzler Mulholland Dr., and widespread audience attention with Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake of King Kong. Nestled between those roles, Watts earned a best actress Academy Award nomination for 21 Grams, playing a housewife grieving for her husband and daughters killed in a hit-and-run automobile accident.

Currently Watts co-stars with Leonardo DiCaprio in J. Edgar, a biography of former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, directed by Oscar winner Clint Eastwood. The movie opens in theaters Nov. 11.

Dillon’s movie career began in the early 1980s, playing juvenile delinquents in such teen favorites as Little Darlings, My Bodyguard, The Outsiders and Rumble Fish. Dillon, now 47, grew up and out of those roles and into edgier adult fare in 1989 with Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy, based on the memoirs of a drug addict and thief.

Two decades of solid performances followed, ranging from broad comedy (There’s Something About Mary) to lurid drama (Wild Things). In 2005, Dillon received best supporting actor Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations for playing a racist Los Angeles policeman in Crash.

The screenplay for Sunlight Jr. earned Collyer a grant from Cinereach, a New York foundation dedicated to independent filmmaking. The film is produced in part by Charlie Corwin, who steered the Spirit Award nominees Half Nelson and The Squid and the Whale, which also depicted downbeat slices of life.

So far, Hibbard isn’t concerned about how his city is represented.

“I don’t know the details of what’s going to be portrayed … That’s why I’m trying not to overreact. If Clearwater were being portrayed as, you know, a widespread socioeconomically depressed area, that would be of concern to me.

“But you want to be open to whatever comes our way if you really want to start seeing a consistent flow of potential movies … I know we can’t regulate content, obviously.”

St. Petersburg Times