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With: Edie Falco, Angela Bassett, Mary Steenburgen, Timothy Hutton, Miguel Ferrer, Jane Alexander, Alan King
Written by: John Sayles
Directed by: John Sayles
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for brief strong language, a sexual reference and thematic elements
Running Time: 141
Date: 05/19/2002

Sunshine State (2002)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

'Sunshine' of Their Lives

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Writer/director John Sayles is one of our most literary filmmakers. The word is first and foremost with him, backed by the research and the knowledge to make those words live.

In every Sayles film, the time and place are perfectly established. If he had made only one film -- say Return of the Secaucus Seven (1980), Eight Men Out (1988), City of Hope (1991), Passion Fish (1992), The Secret of Roan Inish (1995), Lone Star (1996) or Limbo (1999) -- you could swear that he was one of the world's experts on any of those subjects.

And yet he made all of those films, sometimes one a year, giving him only a few months to fully understand a place (sometimes a time), its people, its history and its moods. His thirteenth film as a director, Sunshine State, which opens today in Bay Area theaters, is one of his very best.

As with City of Hope, Sayles weaves a political tapestry consisting of different characters from all walks of life, making up a cohesive whole. In this case, the residents of a small fictional Florida town named Delrona Beach all face an uncertain future as real estate developers come sniffing around, looking to develop their humble hotels, restaurants, etc. into expensive housing.

Edie Falco and Angela Bassett play perhaps the two centerpiece, or at least the most memorable, characters -- and both deliver richly detailed performances. Falco stars as Marly Temple, a cynically witty doll who runs the Sea-Vue Motel. Bassett plays Desiree, a former town heartbreaker who left Florida pregnant and disgraced 25 years earlier, and has now returned with her handsome new husband Reggie Perry (James McDaniel).

Desiree's mother Eunice (Mary Alice) still lives in Lincoln Beach, a stretch of land controlled and occupied by African Americans since time indefinite, which is now (of course) threatened by developers. Eunice has also taken in a 13 year-old boy named Terrell Bernard (Alexander Lewis) with pyromaniac tendencies.

Likewise Marly's motel. She chases off a few shady-looking developers early in the film, but finds herself in a half-hearted romance with one of the slicker ones, played by Timothy Hutton. She doesn't much care about the motel anyway -- she simply inherited it from her nearly blind father (Ralph Waite).

The movie goes even further with many more characters. Mary Steenburgen plays the civic-minded wife of a suicidal county commissioner. (She runs the historic Buccaneer Days festival.) Dr. Lloyd (Bill Cobbs) becomes the soul of Lincoln Beach, hobbling around and offering people words of wisdom. And Alan King, as a multi-millionaire developer, acts as a kind of Greek Chorus as he wanders around a golf course, spouting one-liners to his caddies and opponents.

Geez. I've only barely scratched the surface of this layered film, which runs 2 hours and 21 minutes, packing in the lives of a dozen or more characters without seeming rushed or stilted. Indeed, the movie's many lingering moments have an earthy poignancy -- Falco and Hutton lying drunk on the golf course's grass, or Bassett's heart-to-heart talks with her mother.

I want to emphasize that, though Sayles is a political storyteller and does not shy away from the current events implicit in his story, he somehow manages not to beat us over the head with them, or continually congratulate himself for being so timely and important.

Instead, he gives us a town heading toward inevitable change. He gives us its people -- different sizes, shapes and colors. He shows them working, complaining about the heat, drinking, worrying and fading away. Sunshine State is a movie that both feels and thinks. It's a must-see.

DVD Details: John Sayles contributes an audio commentary track. The trailer is also included.

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