Sunshine State

on June 21, 2002 by Sheri Linden
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   Exquisite performances and strong, atmospheric cinematography by Patrick Cady lift John Sayles' flawed new drama, "Sunshine State," to a memorable, if sometimes ragged, film. The writer-director's social concerns are focused here on an embattled community and its vulnerable wild places. The seaside northern Florida town that Sayles examines is infused with light, but it's not so much the sunny glow the title might suggest as a cold, white sheen, as though truth were bathing the characters during their confrontation with encroaching commercial interests.

   Real estate sharks are closing in on Delrona Beach, and at the center of their maneuverings is the Sea-Vue motel/restaurant. It has fallen into the less-than-eager hands of Marly (Edie Falco, in a pitch-perfect, often startlingly lovely performance) after her father (Ralph Waite, crusty and wonderful) has retired. She thinks she's resigned to her lot, but acts out her dissatisfaction with a vengeance--with an embarrassment of an ex-husband, a dying fling with a young crowd-shy golf pro hopeful, and tequila by the shot. Then sparks fly with Jack (Timothy Hutton), a landscape architect who's in town as part of the Exley Plantation Corp. team, assembled to take their kill: the beachside property in dire need of development. Meanwhile, Desiree (Angela Bassett), newly married to a Boston anesthesiologist, has returned, at her mother's behest, to the town she left as a teenager, under life-shattering circumstances that get revisited, with all the offending parties, during her stay.

   Sayles' multiple threads are often more distracting than helpful in propelling his tale. His style of storytelling doesn't invite emotional engagement so much as emotional observation. But he effectively establishes a sense of place with a fine subtlety, through a mosaic of settings: the local watering hole, a Baptist church, the mall, the dog races (in a sweet touch, two of those greyhounds, retired, are now Marly's father's pets) and the golf course (a group of golfers, led by Alan King, serve as a sort of Greek chorus--to great effect at the very end of the film).

   Not all of the many strands are fully interwoven into the story, or resolved, neither of which is a problem in itself. But Sayles takes too long getting where he wants to be, with the film's first third devoted to disjointed episodes of expository conversations that often feel stilted. Any intended resonance or impact is muted.

   The story finds its pace in the Buccaneer Days sequence, a pathetic Chamber of Commerce event, when we follow the many crisscrossing characters through the town's streets. Rightly, Cady's camera lingers on the expressive, beautiful face of Mary Steenburgen, who plays Delrona Beach's official booster, pink suit and all, with a diamond-fine modulation.

   The ensemble is aces--the performances are what linger when Sayles has made his point. One wishes he had spent more time with just a few of these characters, rather than taken on so ambitious a scope. Nonetheless, it's a film that stays with you.    Starring Angela Bassett, Edie Falco, Timothy Hutton, Jane Alexander, Ralph Waite, Mary Steenburgen, Charlayne Woodard, Sam McMurray and Alan King. Directed and written by John Sayles. Produced by Maggie Renzi. A Sony Pictures Classics release. Drama. Rated PG-13 for brief strong language, a sexual reference and thematic elements. Running time: 140 min.

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