Sunshine State Movie Review

One prominent theme has run through the recent work of maverick filmmaker John Sayles: the search for identity. A need to belong. A desire to know one's place in the world. Within Sayles's trademark ensemble pieces, characters try to define themselves, with many at a crossroads in their lives... whether they know it or not. Most of the beauty and irony with which Sayles tells their tales is present in Sunshine State, but Sayles's narrative is a bit short in comparison to his previous opuses.

The brilliance of Sayles's stories is that he places these people within a much bigger parallel -- a geographical or cultural landscape that's changing as much as its inhabitants are. In City of Hope, it was an unnamed New Jersey city with political problems. In Lone Star -- in my opinion, Sayles's true masterpiece -- it was an evolving Texas border town. In Sunshine State, it's the fictional town of Delrona Beach, a sleepy Florida locale whose land and people are in the process of being overrun by shrewd real estate developers.

As in previous films, Sayles paints a pastiche of citizens that contribute to the long history of the land: Marly (Edie Falco), a sixth-generation native and owner of the local motel; her mother Delia (Jane Alexander), a drama teacher who once dreamed of bigger footlights; Eunice (Mary Alice), an elderly woman with proud memories; her daughter Desiree (Angela Bassett), a beauty queen that was sent away as a pregnant teen; the fascinating list goes on and on.

But one of the problems with Sunshine State is that nearly all of its characters appear to be on the story's periphery, even those whose longer screen time tells us otherwise. There are two relationships that command our thoughts -- that between Marly and a divorced landscape architect (Timothy Hutton) and another between Desiree and her Boston anesthesiologist husband Reggie (James McDaniel) -- but the stories lack the weight to make us believe these characters are the anchors. It is worth noting, however, that Edie Falco does everything in her power to take command, as her performance is the best of the film. As the story progresses, the familiar New Yorker from The Sopranos slips away and all we see is a sun-blond Floridian who wants something better from life.

If a power shortage is the only weakness in Sunshine State, Sayles makes up for it throughout the film with his incisive, sly, poetic dialogue. Like his characters, Sayles's language becomes a by-product of its surroundings. So when Steve (Richard Edson), while dressed for a military re-enactment, pleads with Marly: "You can't live in the past," the coincidence is sharp, sad, and appreciated. And as we learn more about the events in Sunshine State, Sayles' dialogue becomes more captivating and his verbal connections flow from scene-to-scene with greater skill and playfulness.

A slew of side stories and themes abound and, as usual, Sayles asks questions about this country and its heritage: What makes up a "tradition"? How do today's politically correct people view the racial inequality of yesteryear? How do we balance beauty and commerce? That last question has probably been plaguing the filmmaker for years as he keeps control of his own product while looking for that spark of box-office profit. While Sunshine State lacks the searing urgency of City of Hope or the gentle dénouement of Lone Star, fans of the auteur should enjoy this classic John Sayles feature, where he poses the questions and hopes you can come up with the answers.

Sunshiny day.


Sunshine State Rating

" Good "

Rating: PG-13, 2002


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