Survivors of the South

John Sayles’ latest drama offers an intriguing social portrait of Florida

FLORIDIAN CHARACTER Front-woman for the “Buccaneer Days” celebration Mary Steenburgen feebly attempts to make her rundown Florida community a better place, in John Sayles’ new film, <i>Sunshine State.</i>

FLORIDIAN CHARACTER Front-woman for the “Buccaneer Days” celebration Mary Steenburgen feebly attempts to make her rundown Florida community a better place, in John Sayles’ new film, Sunshine State.

Sunshine State
Starring Edie Falco, Angela Bassett, Bill Cobbs, Alan King, Timothy Hutton, Mary Steenburgen, James McDaniel and Gordon Clapp. Directed by John Sayles. Rated PG-13.
Rated 4.0

Writer-director John Sayles has let it be known that he started writing his new movie, which is set in Florida, right after the 2000 presidential election went into its peculiar overtime of hanging chads, etc., in that state. The resulting film, Sunshine State, does not take any direct shots at Bush dynasties, Republicans, or electoral politics of any sort, but it does make an intriguingly ironic social portrait out of its multi-faceted Floridian characters and setting.

As in some of his best previous work (Lone Star and Passion Flower, in particular), Sayles uses a southern setting and an interracial mix of characters to create a series of small but telling dramas. Racial relations, the haunted past of the American South, and Florida’s long history of escapades in real estate are key pieces of background for multiple anecdotes involving the film’s small multitude of characters.

What results is less stinging social commentary than a moody take on the contemporary American zeitgeist, but attentive viewers shouldn’t have too much trouble sifting a quietly sardonic “state of the nation” report out of Sayles’ deceptively digressive narrative. The film’s mix of race, sex, politics, and money has moved some critics to uncomplimentary comparisons with Robert Altman’s Nashville, but Sunshine State is more concerned with survivors of losing battles than with Altman-style national apocalypse.

And those survivors, some of them noble and some of them not, are the most engaging aspect of Sayles’ film. Among the first things we see in the film are a teenager (Alex Lewis) setting fire to a parade float, a local businessman (Gordon Clapp) flubbing an attempt at suicide, and a foursome of golfers philosophizing about the frontiers of commercial adventure in Florida. Only later will we discover that the troubled teenager (Mary Alice) is an orphan being raised by a woman who banished her own daughter because of a teenage pregnancy, and the would-be suicide is married to the forlorn front-woman (Mary Steenburgen) for the feeble “Buccaneer Days” celebration that are supposed to make their rundown coastal island into an attractive destination for tourists.

The golfers turn out to be a laconically American version of a Greek chorus, reappearing halfway through the film and again at the end. They are crucial to the film’s surprisingly complex workings, but they matter less as characters than do Desiree (Angela Bassett), the banished daughter who has come tentatively back home, and Marly Temple (Edie Falco), stuck running her parents’ motel-cafà and wishing she had been able to leave home.

Falco’s performance is especially fine. Her Marly is a tough cookie whose saucy dignity is gradually hardening in the Florida sunshine. Bassett on the other hand has to struggle a bit with the opposite pattern—hardened bitterness melting into something softer and warmer. Clapp and Steenburgen excel in small, inconclusive moments of tragicomedy, and Ralph Waite and Jane Alexander, as Marly’s imposing parents, deliver some surprising shifts of mood. Timothy Hutton (as a landscape consultant) and Richard Edson (as Marly’s ex-husband) provide telling portraits of opportunism, the one reluctant and the other shameless.

The film’s perplexing shifts of modes (realist, absurdist, ironic) may be off-putting to some, but the freewheeling mixture of intimate realism and didactic artifice may prove charming to others (as it does to me). In either event, the spectacle of Falco, Hutton, Bassett, Mary Alice, Steenburgen, Clapp and company negotiating irrevocably unhappy situations makes Sunshine State into one of the sturdiest and most heartening film dramas of the year.