Eric D. Snider

Sunshine State

Superficially, "Sunshine State" is about the war between people who have lived someplace forever and the developers who want to tear it all down and build resorts and strip malls. Underneath it, though, "Sunshine State" is about making bad decisions, getting second chances, forgiving ourselves and starting over.

It's about human beings -- real, honest human beings, like the people you know and love, not like the fake movie characters you sort of know and kind of like. I've always been convinced the best drama and comedy come from reality, not absurdity. John Sayles, who wrote, directed and edited "Sunshine State," has an unflinching but sympathetic eye toward human nature and conveys it through this top-notch ensemble cast.

We are on Plantation Island, Fla., a resort island consisting of mostly white Delrona Beach and mostly black Lincoln Beach. Outsiders want to buy both and turn them into a vacation spot.

In the midst of this, we are introduced to a variety of characters, slowly and satisfyingly learning their connections to each other. Desiree Perry (Angela Bassett), a gorgeous, mildly successful actress in Boston, is returning home for the first time since she was a teen-ager, bringing her husband Reggie (James McDaniel) along to meet her aged mother (Mary Alice). There is bad blood in the family; something occurred years ago that has not healed.

Sardonic Marly Temple (Edie Falco), meanwhile, runs the diner and hotel owned by her aged father (Ralph Waite). Developers want to buy the place, but she knows her dad won't sell. Too bad, because she can hardly stand the business, having once had dreams of performing that have since been stifled and almost forgotten.

Other characters come out of the woodwork. Timothy Hutton plays a would-be developer with whom Marly begins a tentative relationship. Mary Steenburgen plays a community leader trying to organize the annual Buccaneer Days Festival. Gordon Clapp is a suicidal county commissioner whose relationship to the rest of the film we do not see right away. An old football star (Tom Wright) comes to town. A young golf pro (Marc Blucas) prepares to leave. Everyone makes decisions, regrets past decisions and worries about future decisions.

I like the acting in every instance, with the exception of a few minor roles that seem to have been filled by people to whom Sayles owed favors. Among the leads, though, we have Angela Bassett's steely dignity, Bill Cobbs' strength as an old town doctor, and Edie Falco's vulnerable charm and humor as Marly, who once performed as a mermaid-suited swimmer in a water show. "The important thing is to keep that smile on your face, even if you're drowning," she says of the show, but also of her current situation.

The drama is light and the comedy is dark; Sayles' tone is insightful but not maudlin, and the humor is natural and not slapsticky. Most importantly, these are people you want to understand and whose situations you can relate to, on some level.

The curious condition of Florida is also examined to great effect. Developers (one played by Alan King) refer to it as "nature on a leash." Nature itself is dreadful; what people want is a controlled, neutered version of it. The property-buyers treat negotiations like warfare. Watch Miguel Ferrer, as one of the more ruthless ones, use terms like "point of weakest defense" and "a man on the inside" in describing it. And then see the exodus of cars and trucks at the end, driven by people who tried to conquer the wild state of Florida and couldn't do it. The people, even in their human weaknesses, are too resilient.

Grade: B+

Rated PG-13, two F-words, some other scattered profanity, mild sexual innuendo

2 hrs., 20 min.

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