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Sunshine State (PG-13)
Sony Pictures Classics
Official Site
Director: John Sayles
Producer: Maggie Renzi
Written by: John Sayles
Cast: Edie Falco, Angela Bassett, Timothy Hutton, James McDaniel, Mary Steenburgen, Ralph Waite, Jane Alexander, Mary Alice, Bill Cobbs


It’s always strange to see Edie Falco outside of her normal element. On HBO’s “Oz”and “The Sopranos,” she uses her Brooklyn-bred speech patterns to project an unmistakable air of authority and an intolerance of nonsense. Whether as Officer Diane Whittlesey or as Mob wife Carmela Soprano, Falco’s clipped accent and open face make her a bullshit-detector of the highest order.

In Sunshine State, though, Falco trades in “Fugeddaboutit” for “Jest fergit abowdit,” sporting a weary Southeastern drawl that makes no bones about how hard life is. As Marly Temple, the owner and manager of a small hotel/restaurant in the tiny Florida town of Plantation Island, Falco is terrific, mining the role for equal parts pathos, bemusement, and regret. As is her style, Falco concentrates the entire performance in those wide, deep-set eyes and the varied pursings of her lips. It’s a performance that lays bare the truth about fighting for control of your surroundings, even as what happens around you is proving you powerless.

In fact, that leashing of nature, the fear of just letting things happen, is what Sunshine State is all about. John Sayles ( jump to interview has structured his film into two separate stories that present that oh-so-modern tendency to destroy nature for the purpose of creating an artificial “natural” environment. As the film sees it, the tragedy of the human condition is our persistent desire to modernize everything, to find procedure in even the most randomly beautiful aspects of the natural world. This could lead to clumsy moralizing, but, thankfully, except for a few heavy-handed moments involving treatises on the loss of a simpler day, Sayles avoids any pap. He allows his characters to speak for him, something many of today’s more serious filmmakers would do well to learn. Irony is never lost on him either, and the frequent contradictions of the human creature are juxtaposed with the unhurried simplicity of nature.

Like Sayles’s best film, Lone Star, Sunshine State resembles a subtler, more plot-driven Altman film, with its many intersecting characters and separate storylines. These films are gently political, with a social consciousness that is less of a declaration and more of a nudge. But where Lone Star branched out its intimate story to encapsulate all that it is to be Texan, Sunshine State sticks more to its individual characters, their relationships, and how the rapidly changing world affects them personally. There are two main stories here, each taking place on the same beach but in different towns. Marly’s (Falco) story finds her running a motel that began as an exciting venture to make something of herself but has gradually become a prison to her. She dreads even going to work because she feels like her life isn’t amounting to anything more than making other people comfortable as they visit a town where she’s trapped. When developers begin surveying the beach front where Marly’s motel is located, she finds herself in a strange situation: Sure, she’s miserable, and the money she would make by selling the place could help her realize something better for herself, but at the same time, she’s now living the dream that she once had, and even though it’s become a nightmare for her, she has still achieved her goals, something few people get a chance to do. To complicate matters, she finds herself in a fling with the landscape architect (Ordinary People’s Hutton) in charge of surveying the land for development.

Meanwhile, in neighboring town Lincoln Beach, an African-American community still suffering the lingering effects of segregation, Desiree Perry (the phenomenal Bassett) has come home to visit her mother (Alice) and show off her new doctor husband (McDaniel, graciously playing that poor schlep stuck between two feuding women). Lincoln Beach, too, is being eyed by developers. Dr. Lloyd (Cobbs, one of the finest character actors around; you’ve seen him before, he’s in everything) leads the protest against the developers, citing history and family as the biggest casualties of progress. Desiree’s slow rebuilding with her mother reflects the gathering of a community desperate to keep what’s theirs. Angela Bassett is by far one of the best actresses working today, and she’s sadly underused by Hollywood. The natural sound of her voice, that insinuating tone, takes her far in making Desiree into the most human character in the film, complete with the earnestness and the underlying emotions flying around and crashing up against one another in her efforts to reconcile with her mother. It’s one of Bassett’s quieter performances, but one of her more powerful.

A couple of peripheral stories involve Francine Pickney’s (Steenburgen) bid to create a town tradition in the “Pirate Queen Pageant,” something she finds is much more difficult than she thought, even while her husband (Clapp) repeatedly tries to commit suicide unbeknownst to her;and the return of a washed-up football player to his hometown, where he commits the unforgivable sin of coming home to profit off his history. The more entertaining of the two is definitely Francine’s. I think I’m probably the only person left in the world who finds Mary Steenburgen absolutely hysterical, and to hell with everyone else, she created my favorite moments in this film.

Unfortunately, though, none of the stories in Sunshine State ends up feeling like they’ve been told correctly. It’s not that they’re lacking in total resolution (which they are, but that’s not a problem, that’s real life). The problem lies in the fact that, while the stories themselves seem to conclude that being in your element is the best thing for you, the film itself ends up deciding that branching out in life and following your dreams is what’s necessary to establish happiness. Which is the healthier advice? Perhaps it’s saying that your dream should be what is easiest to achieve. But I don’t think so. I think the incongruity here, that refusal to cut loose and make a decision, eventually shows how the film itself reflects that fear of losing control. Letting go means just that: letting go.

—Cole Sowell


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