Prefab promised land for snowbirds, retirees, exiles, and carpetbaggers, not to mention tabloid devotees, Florida is most often a destination (or a last ditch), not a place of origin. John Sayles’s version is no less a gift-shop petri dish breeding condos, golf courses, and vampire speculators, but through Sunshine State‘s microscope, a rarer specimen comes under kindly scrutiny: the born-and-bred Floridian.
As in most of Sayles’s contemporary films, the domineering past is the main character. Desiree (Angela Bassett), who left Plantation Island a quarter-century ago as a pregnant teenager for points north, tries to make amends with her ghosts of yesteryear—as well as her hard-to-please mom, Eunice (Mary Alice)—while sixth-generation local Marly (Edie Falco), erstwhile Weeki Watchee mermaid and reluctant motel manager, considers breaking with hers altogether. The future rears its ugly head in the shape of real estate leviathans poised to consume Desiree and Marly’s sleepy neighboring hometowns—the former mostly black, the latter largely white—and regurgitate them as strip-mall zones and pricey gated enclaves. Long on bad memories but short on sustaining (read: tourist-baiting) traditions, Plantation Island attempts to concoct an ersatz legacy via “Buccaneer Days,” a town-wide celebration of founding-father pirates spearheaded by the Chamber of Commerce’s own Katherine Harris adept (Mary Steenburgen).
The shaggy ensemble narrative, as in City of Hope and Lone Star, doubles as an oral history of a community—or two, in the case of this de facto segregated burg—fecund with anecdotal nuance and inconvenient details. The end of Jim Crow, as old-timer Dr. Lloyd (Bill Cobbs) tells Desiree’s affable husband (James McDaniel), actually contributed to the decline of black-owned businesses and erosion of African American solidarity in the area, while the advent of environmental regulation, as Marly’s codger dad (Ralph Waite) rants to his nurse, helped squeeze out small companies. (The film never rebuts the latter claim; in general, Sayles steers clear of Hiaasen-style proselytizing on ecological plunder.)
As Marly initiates a touchingly awkward tryst with mild-mannered landscape architect Jack (Timothy Hutton), the personal meets—and somewhat supersedes—the political. Here Sunshine State‘s wistful themes, familiar to Sayles loyalists, emerge: regret about who you wished to be, resignation to who you’ve become. “Oh, shit happens, you know?” Marly tells Jack, by way of explaining why she never pursued her interest in oceanography. “And a lot of it happened to me.”
Sayles’s directorial strategy occasionally amounts to throwing what happens against a wall and seeing what sticks—his allegiance to everyday verisimilitude always tends toward messy sprawl and hanging threads, but even relative to his oeuvre, Sunshine State is haphazardly assembled. (The meandering trajectory seems especially amorphous after Limbo, an ambitious experiment in asymmetrical structure.) But prickly, strong-willed Desiree—a would-be actress who ended up an infomercial regular—and wry, tequila-besotted Marly are two superbly drawn (and performed) characters standing at a midlife intersection of resilience and disillusionment, and Sunshine State‘s souvenir mug runneth over with indelible stolen moments: Marly and Jack’s hesitant, self-preserving physical chemistry; Desiree and Eunice’s stubborn stalemate coming to a brief halt when mother and daughter simply sit down and gaze at each other. The whole of Sunshine State is less than the sum of its parts, but the parts are often lovely, and always true.
Ian McCrudden’s DV feature Mr. Smith Gets a Hustler (Outrider, opens June 21 at the Screening Room) finds a dim-witted rent boy named Bobby (Alex Feldman) getting oedipally flummoxed by the attentions of a middle-aged john (Larry Pine), who enjoys chatting, Knicks games, and not having sex with Bobby. The high-concept scenario soon proves preposterous, the acting is robotically italicized, and truth-in-advertising hounds take note: There’s very little hustling on view, though McCrudden does arrange for his lead gym rat to be shirtless as often as possible.