Leave it to independent filmmaker John Sayles to take on developers, the Chamber of Commerce, tourism, historical pageants, and commercialism all in the same movie. In Sunshine State, he turns a probing eye on Florida, exploring conflicts in each of these areas – but without neglecting character development for even one minute.
So what if the film tries to follow too many individuals as they go about their business in Delrona Beach during the Second Annual Buccaneer Days celebration? Every person has a story of interest to writer/director Sayles (Lone Star). In this case, his most intrguing characters are women. There’s Desiree (Angela Bassett), who returns to her home community after leaving under a cloud many years before, Marly (Edie Falco), a divorcee stuck with running her blind father’s business, and Francine (Mary Steenburgen), a Chamber of Commerce stalwart in charge of Buccaneer Days.
Oscar-nominee Bassett (What’s Love Got To Do With It?) imbues Desiree with smoldering hostility, most of it directed at the mother who sent her away at age 15 because she was pregnant. Equally outstanding, Falco (The Sopranos) effectively projects Marly’s sense of hopelessness over the loss of her own dreams. But it’s Oscar-winner Steenburgen (Melvin and Howard) who walks away with this film. Employing unusual vocal inflections and a quick change of facial expression, she conveys oh-so subtle differences in feeling and turns an individual who seems like a silly character at first into someone quite complex. Ultimately, Francine becomes surprisingly sympathetic. When she whines to her husband, "It’s not easy to invent a tradition," I actually wanted to pat this woman on the back and offer words of encouragement, despite how ridiculous her Buccaneer Days project seemed to me.
There are also two exceptional male performances in Sunshine State. James McDaniel (NYPD Blue) seems just right in the role of Desiree’s trophy doctor husband, an outsider who can’t hide his confusion, and sometimes his worry, concerning Delrona Beach events. Ralph Waite (The Waltons), portraying Marly’s ailing father, emerges as a convincing curmudgeon who really isn't so bad after all. The big disappointment in this category is Timothy Hutton. Playing an employee of a development company with its eye on Delrona Beach property, Hutton looks like he would prefer being somewhere else. He’s too lethargic here. To be fair, I'm probably unwilling to accept Hutton in this kind of role after watching him do such a terrific job as fast-talking "Archie" in the Nero Wolfe television series.
Excitement and villains may be lacking in Sunshine State, but food for thought abounds. Colorful characters struggle with family expectations while dealing with questions of love, duty and responsibility. Sayles shot the film on Amelia Island, which is a place like the film’s Delrona Beach -- home to a traditionally white enclave and a traditionally black enclave. Explaining his fascination with Amelia Island, Sayles says, "What I found was an island with all the elements – old and new. Mom and Pop businesses and corporate chains, gated communities, history as myth and tourist attraction, real estate as the hotly contested central issue in politics and parallel racial enclaves all crammed into a relatively small area."
Sayles obviously tried to cram all of this into two hours and twenty minutes. Still, because I became so fond of the people in Sunshine State, I wish he’d presented it as a miniseries instead. I’d love to see Sayles do a television sequel about the further adventures of Desiree, Marly, and Francine. He could count on me as one of its faithful viewers.
(Released by Sony Pictures Classics and rated PG-13 for brief strong language, a sexual reference and thematic elements.)