Sunshine State
M O V I E   R E V I E W   B Y   D A V I D   N G

Retreating from the Alaskan wilderness of his previous film, Limbo, writer-director John Sayles makes a diagonal leap to the opposite corner of the United States -- Florida's Amelia Island -- in his latest effort, Sunshine State. Though the geography couldn't be more different, the mission is the same: to record the heartbeat of a particular pocket of North American life and to document its ecosystem, that is, its human ecosystem. Sunshine State has over ten major characters each of whom Sayles puts through his standard emotional workouts: parent-child antagonism, midlife ennui, and belated homecomings. If his approach feels at times too familiar, the results are more than satisfying. The excellent cast, from Edie Falco's tequila-swilling motelier to Angela Bassett's bitter daughter, teems with life as if it were molded out of the swampy Florida soil. It's this fecund land, with its layers of buried civilization, that informs the entire movie. Conquered and re-conquered throughout history, Florida is a land continually besieged by outsiders who want nothing more than to build on top of their predecessors. Their intrusive presence is something that the natives, past and present, have learned to cope with in bizarre, often inspired ways.

Sayles' present day conquistadors materialize as a group of ugly real estate developers keen on turning Delrona Beach, the fictional community where the movie takes place, into a suburban paradise of glistening one-family homes. Numerous and infinitely resourceful, they invade the island like an army, upsetting the natural order of human activity. They meet their enemy in Dr. Lloyd (Bill Cobbs), an elder statesman of the community who rails against them at a local hearing. Dr. Lloyd's enthusiasm is the exception in this sleepy town. A black man, Dr. Lloyd lives in the part of town won by the descendants of freed slaves, and while still loyal to the idea of self-sufficiency, none of his neighbors feels like leaving his front porch to join the fight.

Neither do many of the white inhabitants. Their part of town, as done-up with strip malls and golf courses as the black part of town is untouched, stands as a haggard tribute to the colonizing power of capitalism. Making money has become a mindset: native Americans sell chintzy trinkets to tourists; pot-heads concoct schemes to traffic iguanas; and the citizenry markets its collective identity in the form of the annual Buccaneer Day Parade, a white-washed affair complete with beauty pageant and ebullient emcee (Mary Steenburgen). In a town where everyone has a great idea and where big business has already left its gaping footprint, what's another sleazy real estate venture?

The lone holdout is Edie Falco's Marly, a Delrona Beach lifer and inheritor of her father's fleabag motel. For some reason owing to dignity, she refuses to sell her only possession to the men she calls buzzards. Divorced and sarcastic, Marly may be physically grounded, but she's an emotional vagabond, finding equal solace in a bottle of tequila and in her latest boy-toy. Her friendship with one of the real estate developers (Timothy Hutton) provides a brief diversion if only because both seem to know but never say that their relationship, like everything else in Florida, is destined to be buried by the next best thing to come along. Falco's masterful performance acknowledges life's minor defeats in off-the-cuff ways. Her body language mixes middle-age guardedness with tomboy posturing: she's prone to propping herself up with a careless arm, cocking her head impudently, and slouching unladylike on her barstool. When she speaks, it's in a no-bull drawl that registers weariness and also the weariness of fighting that weariness. Marly's most revealing moment comes when she recounts her short-lived stint as a mermaid at a Sea World-esque amusement park. You had to keep smiling even if you were drowning, she explains, a nascent smile erupting. The practice has clearly paid off. Falco's Marly makes midlife burnout look positively radiant.

Mindful of his own role as a prying Northerner, Sayles has created an audience surrogate in the form of Desiree (Angela Bassett), a one-time actress now infomercial doyenne who, unlike Marly, fled Delrona Beach as a pregnant teenager and never looked back. Returning after a twenty-year absence, with buppie husband in tow, Desiree is uneasy at first ("I don't like who I am down here") but sets herself to confronting the long-repressed hostility of her prim mother, Eunice (Mary Alice). Their mother-daughter haranguing is the stuff of soaps, but Sayles is in firm control here. He has his actors enunciate quietly and with an almost painful politeness; anger is sublimated into extreme gentility. Sayles' tendency to steer clear of the obvious may itself feel contrived, but there's an undeniable pleasure in watching actors such as Bassett, whose intensity can sometimes be too much, exercising restraint in the name of naturalism. In fact, restraint seems to have possessed the entire cast, the males in particular, from Desiree's sullen teenage nephew to a shy ex-fling who doesn't remember Desiree as well as she remembers him.

Having taken enormous care in establishing his cast of characters, Sayles links them all together in a lovely seashell necklace of coincidences. Desiree and Marly -- the movie's gemini heroines -- never formally meet, but you can count the degrees of separation on one hand: Desiree's nephew finds work with a local theater owner (Jane Alexander) who happens to be Marly's mother. Sayles (who as usual takes on editing duties) glides between characters with a fluidity that is Altmanesque in the way it links everyone, however briefly. But to call Sunshine State an ensemble piece would be inaccurate; it is a series of interconnected solos, each character allotted his or her moment to shine. This gives the movie an inherent patchwork feel but it also ennobles the chance encounter. When Desiree's nephew and Marly's bigoted, blind father meet near the end, their conversation is free to travel to unexpected places simply because they are complete strangers. Whether the old man knows his new friend is black is a question that Sunshine State wisely leaves unanswered.

As much as he tiptoes around human relationships, Sayles doesn't or can't treat his politics with the same degree of subtlety. His indictment of the buy-and-destroy ethos of contemporary Florida is personified as a group of crass golfers who expound chorus-like on the need for Mother Nature to serve human progress. Obnoxious and easy to despise, they say nothing that Sayles hasn't said before, and often with far less nuance. How can a bunch of old, white golfers have more to say than the sight of a Native American working for the mendacious real estate hawks? Or the appearance of fast food on proud Eunice's kitchen table? Irony is the sharpest tool. Sayles manages to redeem himself in the movie's final shot, a true coup-de-montage that is too good to spoil. Rest assured, those noisy golfers will get what they asked for.

[rating: 4 of 4 stars]

Distributor Web site: Sony Pictures Classics
Movie Web site: Sunshine State



Photo credits: © 2001 Sony Pictures Entertainment, Inc. All rights reserved.