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Sunshine State

John Sayles, USA, 2002

Rating: 3.6



Posted: July 28, 2002

By Laurence Station

Sunshine State opens with the image of a burning pirate flag, a strong visual that effectively symbolizes the social, emotional and political themes director John Sayles explores in his 13th feature film. Sayles obviously sees the greedy developers who converge on the fictional Plantation Island (based on Florida's Amelia Island, where State was shot) as plundering raiders intent on turning the place into a gaudy tourist trap -- with little concern for the detrimental environmental effects that will result from their development.

Since there's little question which side the stridently liberal-minded Sayles is on, the true test of Sunshine State lays not in its politics, but in the handling of its multitude of characters and their interactions. Sayles has directed similar ensemble-driven pieces before, most notably 1991's City of Hope and 1996's Lone Star, taking an Altman-esque, omniscient overview of the proceedings. Unlike Altman, however, Sayles prefers to get intimately up close and personal with his characters, and does so here in a comparatively non-ironic manner; Sunshine State is as concerned with the lives cast adrift as a result of decisions to either leave or stay on the island as it is with the citizens' struggle against the deep-pocketed poachers.

Although it boasts a strong ensemble cast Sunshine State pivots on two key characters: Marly (wonderfully managed by Edie Falco), who has remained on the island, and Desiree (a committed Angela Bassett), who left a quarter of a century earlier under a cloud of scandal. Marly grudgingly runs her nearly blind father's beachfront restaurant and motel -- a classic Mom and Pop operation -- and pines for something more out of life than her current existence: bedding a wannabe golf pro, dodging her shiftless ex-husband, and getting drunk down at the local bar. Enter Jack Meadows (well-handled by an understated Timothy Hutton), a surveyor for the large conglomerate looking to buy out the local yokels and bulldoze all traces of the island's individuality. Although Jack works for the "enemy," the chemistry between him and Marly proves too strong for either to resist, and it's to Sayles's credit that the relationship between the two is handled in a mature and refreshingly believable manner.

Bassett's Desiree, meanwhile, is a former actress, recently married to Reggie (James McDaniel), a supportive, if unexciting, anesthesiologist. Back home for her first extended stay since leaving years earlier, Desiree desperately wants to reconnect with her mother (Mary Alice, in a fine turn), who sent her away after Desiree became pregnant at the age of fifteen. Compounding matters is the presence of Terrell (Alexander Lewis), Desiree's teenaged cousin, a troubled orphan. (It's Terrell who sets fire to the pirate ship parade float that gives the film its dramatic opening shot.) Terrell represents the child Desiree's mother will finally be able to raise to adulthood. Something she didn't get to do with her own daughter. Also, the fact that Desiree eventually lost her young son at birth and, due to complications, can no longer have children, places added emphasis on Terrell's presence in her mother's household.

Sayles could have focused entirely on the stories of Marly and Desiree and had a fine film on his hands. But he doggedly sticks with his populist structure, giving the peripheral characters more than their fair share of screen time. Bill Cobbs cannily handles the fiery yet avuncular role of Dr. Lloyd, the town's leading activist against outside commercial and residential incursions. Gordon Clapp and Mary Steenburgen do excellent work as an interesting but never wholly developed couple, he a suicidal banker drowning in gambling debts, she a tireless community leader struggling to stage the town's second annual Buccaneer Days festival ("People don't realize how hard it is to invent a tradition," Steenburgen bemoans in one of the film's funniest lines.)

Elsewhere in the voluminous cast, the excellent Jane Alexander and appropriately crotchety Ralph Waite, as Marly's parents, have little to do; Waite's Furman exists primarily to act as one of Sayles's many mouthpieces, spouting what one assumes to be the director's not-so-subtle views on greed, race and the passing of small-town America. Alan King, acting as another such mouthpiece, gets away with some of the movie's best lines; early on, he refers to landscapes shaped by the hand of man as "nature on a leash."

Sunshine State tackles many issues, from defending the rights of the little guy against big business to the pitfalls of greed and --  most effectively -- the disintegration of the traditional family. All of these disparate threads, not surprisingly, fail to come together by film's end, as a too-convenient historical discovery halts development of the planned community. From that point on, any momentum Sunshine State possesses effectively drains away.

The performances throughout are strong, and Sayles's ear for conversational dialogue remains spot-on, but State's lack of closure, of true emotional reconciliation, critically dampens its impact. While Sayles's decision not to tie things up too neatly may make sense realistically, as a dramatic device it falls notably short, and as a result State ultimately fails to deliver on the formidable promise of its opening frame.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterpiece
 4.0-4.9: Exceptional

 3.0-3.9: Solid fare

 2.0-2.9: The mediocrities...
 1.1-1.9: Poor
 0.0-1.0: Utter dreck
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