Sunshine State
review by Carrie Gorringe, 21 June 2002

28th Seattle International Film Festival

In a career replete with masterworks (Return of the Secaucus Seven, Eight Men Out), director John Sayles has added another to his repertoire with  his wonderful new film, Sunshine State. Ostensibly the tale of how a developer is attempting to desecrate the traditional way of life in a small seaside town in the "sunshine state" of Florida (in the name of erecting high-end condos and "plantation" homes), the film's title is a play on prevailing social conditions and tensions. This being a John Sayles film, no detail is devoid of metaphorical significance: there are naturally two "sunshine states" at work in this not-so-sleepy little town. In addition to the beautiful surroundings, there is the obligatory "sunshine state" in which most of the inhabitants find and place themselves: they paper over worries and resentments with the usual thin veneer of "happy talk" and formal behavior, but it's never quite enough to conceal the socio-political tectonic plates rumbling and grinding against each other just below the surface.

In the midst of this, the lives and crises of two women stand out. Desirée (Angela Bassett) returns home with her new husband, a successful anesthesiologist (James McDaniel) to the home of her estranged mother (Mary Alice). The constant presence of Desirée's husband by her side is her armor against reality, but whether or not her marriage will be effective in helping her to confront and surmount aspects of her obviously deeply troublesome past is debatable . Marly (Edie Falco) is the proprietor of a run-down nearly-beachfront motel inherited from her father (Ralph Waite). Once an aspiring oceanographer, she must decide whether or not it's worth selling off the family property to a group of eager developers, or holding on to the familiar, if uncomfortable, life she now has; her decision isn't given much encouragement by her father (Ralph Waite), who has his own ambiguous feelings about a possible sale. Around the trials of these two women swirl issues of race and class: the developers who are interested in Marly's motel are also trying to buy up what was once a segregated beach for the black middle and upper-middle classes, now prime real estate for whites who are trying to create "paradise" by American middle-class standards (snidely, if aptly, defined by an outside observer as "nature on a leash"). This sets off protests by the few black community leaders remaining in the town, protests that threaten to mar the attempts of civic boosters to improve their town's image by creating a new tourist attraction : the "Buccaneer Days" festival. These disparate, yet interconnected events play themselves out over the course of a long weekend, and, as might be expected in this type of film, reveal to the characters exactly what they already know about themselves.

What places Sunshine State above other films of this type is the meticulous plotting that is Sayles' hallmark. As a screenwriter, Sayles practices what might be called "efficient economy" in developing his characters; he instinctively knows how much detail and which ones to utilize in formulating the life of a particular individual. The result is a character full of authenticity, one with no mannerisms that appear forced. He never rushes his characters into situations, giving the character development both time to develop on screen and for the audience to take the information in. By doing this, Sayles further secures a character's sense of legitimacy for the audience. Finally, the director eschews so-called "A-list" casting, opting instead for talented actors who can interpret the material without star personas interfering with the process (this is especially true in the case of Edie Falco, whose standout performance here is so utterly different from her role as the long-suffering mob matriarch on The Sopranos – both in mannerisms and appearance -- as to be unrecognizable). When this is combined with a narrative crafted with equal skill and thoughtfulness, the result is a film that is smooth in style without either losing its depth or becoming stridently didactic. It's a delight to watch on all levels.

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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