Sunshine State Movie Review
Another utterly captivating John Sayles ensemble piece with an incredible sense of a particular place and its personality, "Sunshine State" manifests the winds of change and uncertainty blowing mightily over a humble island township off the Florida panhandle that has been targeted for ravenous resort development.
Like "Lone Star," "Limbo" and other films from the iconic independent writer-director, this one transports you into the soul of its community through smaller pieces of the whole. Sayles paints a larger picture through the lives of individual denizens who are each struggling with a choice between the rich heritage of their fading pocket berg and the big money being offered by developers.
Some are rediscovering a spiritual connection to the town, like Angela Bassett, who plays a refugee from the island's black community, which made the place thrive in the 1940s before its culture began fading away with desegregation. She couldn't get away fast enough as a teenager -- although that might have been because she was pregnant and her parents were sending her away whether she liked it or not. She became an actress but never made it past infomercials. Now she has returned to visit her estranged mother (Mary Alice) for the first time with her handsome, affluent new husband (James McDaniel) on her arm.
Others like the diner-and-motel owner-operator played by Edie Falco ("The Sopranos"), feel strangled by the tentacles that tether them to the island. Her father (Ralph Waite) is a caustic curmudgeon who has gone blind and can't run the place himself anymore but refuses to sell it (especially not to the developers), thus saddling Falco with the joint. She's also stuck in a romantic rut that might be broken soon -- ironically enough by the resort developers' visiting landscape architect (Timothy Hutton). He's a genuine, self-sufficient guy -- everything her usual lovers are not. But he's a little haunted by not being able to fully justify what he does for a living, creating "nature on a leash" and golf courses where marshes once stood.
Besides these two women, who are Sayles' compass characters in "Sunshine State," the manifold menagerie includes many colorful workaday folks. Gordon Clapp plays a suicidal city councilman who is on the take and Mary Steenburgen is his wife, an obsessive organizer of poorly attended festivals to celebrate the town's history. Tom Wright is a washed-up college football hero, hired as a stooge for the developers, who to tries to take advantage of his glory days cache to fleece the locals. And there's a Greek chorus of ironic philosopher-golfer retirees -- led by comedian Alan King -- who provide the picture with chapter stops and comic relief as they chip and putt their way through 18 holes built almost on top of the town's graveyard.
Unlike most of Sayles' work, the film suffers from a certain level of predictability (an obvious past connection between Bassett and Wright is treated as a big surprise), and the stories arch so gradually that around the half-way mark I started to check my watch before the movie sucked me back in for the extremely satisfying last hour.
But even when it's slow, "Sunshine State" is engrossingly true to life, driven as it is by remarkably three-dimensional personalities, metaphors for the decay of tradition and history, and a very human sense of humor.
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