One of the best things about John Sayles’ films is that they have a powerful sense of place–Sayles is interested in the contexts in which his characters live and make their livings. Matewan, for example, dealt with labor organizing in the mining industry, and in Limbo Sayles’ story, placed in Alaska, showed the local fishing and canning industry to excellent effect. Sunshine State, of course, is an excursion into Florida, focusing on real estate developers and how they manipulate, speculate, and homogenize the environment.
Delrona Beach, a funky, old time Florida island beach town, is under siege by developers who secretly start to buy up properties to be combined for a large upscale resort. They subvert the local politicians and pressure the small property owners with fear tactics and lies. Marly Temple (Edie Falco) manages the local motel, a business that her aging, crusty father, Furman (Ralph Waite), built from scratch years before. Her mother, Delia (Jane Alexander), had aspirations for the stage, but has settled for running the local theater group and supporting the Audubon Society. Marly is divorced, having an affair with a golf pro ten years her junior, and she drinks a lot.
A bit down the road on the island is a black community, Lincoln Beach, also part of the developers’ plans. There Desiree Perry (Angela Bassett) has returned after a long absence to visit her mother, Eunice Stokes (Mary Alice). Desiree arrives with her husband Reggie (James McDaniel), an anesthesiologist. The relationship between Desiree and Eunice is strained; piece by piece their family history is revealed.
There are another half dozen or more minor characters floating in and out of the story; Sayles is striving here for the multiple storyline, multiple character structure identified most closely with director Robert Altman–films such as Gosford Parkand Short Cuts. But where Altman, at his best, makes his story and characters flow in a seamless narrative, Sunshine State seems choppy and didactic, with scenes and characters thrown in for the purpose of making desired points, to the detriment of narrative cogency and dramatic pacing. From time to time, the film cuts to a trio of golfers, completely unrelated to the plot, one of whom (Alan King) is spouting his ideas about the economic and cultural history of Florida. While that dialogue is not uninteresting, it further weakens the pacing of a film that already is getting lost in its floating pool of underdeveloped characters.
Similarly, Furman has an interesting monologue about how the politically correct, with their plethora of environmental and zoning regulations, have made it near impossible for small businesses to compete with the invading developers who have teams of lawyers, lobbyists, and experts to fend off and coop the bureaucracy. But Furman (aside from what Waite manages to imply in a strong performance) is never developed as a full fledged character. Neither, for that matter, is Delia, even with radiant Jane Alexander in the role.
Falco is a disappointment here. In the wonderful and overlooked film Judy Berlin she imbued her character with life and stole the heart away. Here her role asks her to be restless and bored and dissatisfied, but the script provides little motivation or understanding of why she is the way she is. (Her accent is inconsistent, too, and she starts to come off as an Ellen Degeneris impression.) There’s also no sense of family connection amongst the Temples. Each one seems there to make another point on Sayles’ checklist. For themes to be convincing, they must grow out of believable characterizations, not grafted on to characters like ill-fitting hairpieces.
The Lincoln Beach part of the film is more successful, aided by a more interesting family history and top notch performances by the three principals. Mary Alice’s performance captures a complex mixture of pride and hurt, of faded middle class aspirations. The conflicted mother-daughter relationship is emotionally evocative. But their story doesn’t seem particularly rooted in Florida; it could be anywhere. It does knit with the film in another way, though: Sayles is playing on variations of a theme about how youthful hopes become compromised and how people accommodate, as they grow older, to the realities of ordinary lives.
That theme could also be extended to the state of Florida itself, a promising paradise of nature, despoiled by the greed of unprincipled commercial overdevelopment. Sayles is also interested in the myths vs. the realities–even the phony myths and legends that were invented just last week for commercial exploitation by the chamber of commerce.
Sunshine State is rich in thoughtful ideas, but disappointingly uneven in dramatic power and lacking the characterizations that would have imbued the ideas with emotional impact.