Sunshine State
review by Elias Savada, 21 June 2002

28th Seattle International Film Festival

What might you expect from a film eponymously set in the land of good ole Jeb Bush, those damned dimpled chads, and a sea of transient moppets traipsing their parents around Disney World? Well, none of the above if you manage to catch this engrossingly extended (at 141 minutes, it passes quickly) big screen pop quiz. The political hijinx in independent film poster child John Sayles' thoroughly engrossing new movie don't reflect on presidential elections or siblings, or your Uncle Walt's niece and nephew visiting from Schenectady. Rather, small town Florida politicians, backstabbing land developers, and handful of just plain (but certainly not bland) folks upset with the gentrification of their close-knit neighborhood comprise another appealing multicharacter approach to film-making that affords director-writer-editor-handyman Sayles' thirteenth film (as director) an amiable stroll along one of the life's lesser known beaches. Sunshine State is definitely one of his most accomplished works, right alongside the highly acclaimed Lone Star, his sprawling indictment of a small Texas border town (which earned Sayles an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay), and his real-low-budget directorial debut Return of the Secaucus Seven. Perennial themes of corruption and uncertain hope pepper his cross-genre work, but it’s the raw honesty of his characters that makes them so appealing. It's that same quality which is so proudly evident in some of Robert Altman's work, particularly -- as it fits in with Sayles' current subject -- the laid-back, underrated Southern dramedy Cookie's Fortune.

So Sayles and his traveling ensemble have journeyed eastward from Lone Star to Passion Fish (Louisiana) to the land of palm trees and gators, reassembling -- with the filmmaker's long-time producer and life-partner Maggie Renzi -- some of his old friends (Angela Bassett, Gordon Clapp, Bill Cobbs, Richard Edson, Clifton James, Tom Wright, Miguel Ferrer) with some actors new to Sayles' cinematic world, among them Timothy Hutton, Ralph Waite, Clapp's NYPD Blue co-star James McDaniel, The Sopranos' matriarch Edie Falco, and Mary Steenbergen.

As the film begins, a series of seemingly unrelated scenes bombard the viewer. A pirate ship is ablaze and a young black boy stands watching. Alan King and his foursome (who bookend the film) provide some biting historical context on wealthy landowners turning swamplands into golf courses, of "selling sunshine" and nature on a leash. After a pit stop at the local Sea-Vue Motel run by a ditsy local gal, an attractive black woman and her anesthesiologist husband land at the doorstep of an estranged parent. Meanwhile a local politician tries to commit suicide.

Like a subtle fog, the confusion slowly lifts amid the elegant camera work of Patrick Cady (Girlfight) with leisurely pans, zooms, and other movements as the characters bit by bit intertwine on the screen, revealing their relationships. It's much like a child's game of connect-the-dots or a slowed-downed version of E.R., the plot jig sawing back and forth among the long-time stalwarts of African-American enclave Lincoln Beach as they fight off encroaching development plans of various business interests desirous of the island's prime beachfront property. Nearby, Marly Temple (Falco) who runs her family's motel with increasing disdain, gets similar overtures from the real estate men with the big bucks and semi-nefarious notions.

Standouts in the cast? Well, it's a true ensemble piece, impossible to break down within the limited scope of this review. In the end, everyone registers, even if his or her screen time is less than that of their thespian compatriots. Richard Edson, for one, is a ne'er-do-well ex-husband pitching mail-order iguana scams with maybe four brief appearances (and probably the only film he's ever been called handsome…and Greek). Gordon Clapp, who has worked with Sayles since his debut feature, is that befuddled unsuccessful suicidalist, one Erle Pickney, a local commissioner on the take. His wife, Francine (Mary Steenbergen), promotes the town's market-driven Buccaneer Days with a plastic smile and a fistful of depression. No one really gets a lot of screen time to steal the show, although Falco's interpretation of Marly as short-haired, dirty-blonde, would-be adventuress has some of the better lines and dead-pan jokes (I especially liked her sarcastic delivery on the death of sponges). Her hauntingly vacant eyes search out the few romantic prospects in town, moving from a studly golf pro anxious to get over a case of stage fright, to Jack Meadows, a landscape architect (Tim Hutton) with a carefree indifference in the ethics of his employers.

It's Sayles' deliberate writing and directing style that wins his film a stunning vote of confidence. An acclaimed novelist and 1983 winner of a MacArthur "genius" award, there's not one ounce of slouching in his smooth, self-assured filmmaking style. He's unconsciously crafted a lovely, small-scale revisionist rewrite of Seven Days in May, while powerfully focusing on the personal battle lines imperiling one Florida community. One of the most original American productions this year, you'll find yourself remembering this refreshing visit to a Sunshine State.

Seattle International Film Festival Coverage:



Written and
Directed by:

John Sayles

Jane Alexander
Ralph Waite
Angela Bassett
James McDaniel
Mary Alice
Bill Cobbs
Gordon Clapp
Mary Steenburgen
Timothy Hutton
Tom Wright
Marc Blucas
Alexander Lewis
Perry Lang
Miguel Ferrer
Charlayne Woodard
Clifton James
Cullen Douglas
Alan King
Eliot Asinof
Richard Edson
Michael Greyeyes

R- Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult





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