Sunshine State (2002)

Sunshine State

a review by Jeffrey Overstreet


As he did in Passion Fish, Lone Star, The Secret of Roan Innish, and Limbo… as he does almost all of the time … John Sayles has given us here another movie in which we learn as much about the region as we do about the characters who live there.


Sunshine State takes place, of course, in Florida. In a small island community, full of small family businesses, folks are trying to carry on their traditions in spite of encroaching developers, big money, and the homogenization of American society.

The film tells several stories. The most central are about two women in very different dilemmas. One follows Marly (Edie Falco) running a small restaurant who wants to sell the place and get on with her life. But her father is stubborn and doesn’t want to surrender to the pressure of big corporations. The other woman, Desiree (Angela Bassett) has become a moderate success in the big city, and is now returning home face her family for the first time since she was “sent away” as a troubled teenager.

There is no “crime” at the heart of the story, as in Lone Star or Limbo. It is essentially a drama about strained relationships and people who, as in Limbo, are stuck in a rut and need to purge the problems from their lives.

But Sayles is never content to oversimplify things. This is also a story bold enough to explore issues of racism, the Disney-ification of American history, the way religious zeal can become poisonous pride, and the need for commitment and integrity in romantic relationships.

Sunshine State may be Sayles’ most heavy-handed work in a decade or more. Several conversations become preachy monologues. But this is a small complaint. His writing is so good, and so convincing, he makes the experience more like reading a complex and well-researched novel than watching a movie. He gives his actors such complex, compelling characters that their enthusiasm keeps us hooked throughout. Bassett has never been better. And Falco gives one of those performances that make you wonder if she really is like her character in real life… it’s that convincing.

Other surprises: a welcome performance by the too-rarely-seen Timothy Hutton, and a surprise (and I hope star-making) turn by James McDaniel (who used to play the chief on NYPD Blue). Mary Steenburgen turns in another fine (if familiar) performance as the coordinator of a local nostalgia fair “Buccaneer Days”. She’s so good at this kind of thing: the woman whose smile speaks of more veiled bitterness and loneliness than we want to see. It may strike you as too close to her Gilbert Grape character, but it certainly plays an important part in this portrait of a realistic and complicated community.

So no, it’s not quite the landmark achievement of Lone Star or Roan Innish, or as haunting as Limbo… but it’s worth seeing more than once, and will probably be on my short-list of favorites for the year. A secondary John Sayles film is still better than most director’s best efforts.

Writer/director/editor – John Sayles
Director of photography, Patrick Cady
Music – Mason Daring
Production designer – Mark Ricker
Producer – Maggie Renzi
Sony Pictures Classics. 141 minutes. Rated PG-13.

STARRING: Edie Falco (Marly Temple), Jane Alexander (Delia Temple), Ralph Waite (Furman Temple), Angela Bassett (Desiree Perry), James McDaniel (Reggie Perry), Mary Alice (Eunice Stokes), Bill Cobbs (Dr. Lloyd), Gordon Clapp (Earl Pickney), Mary Steenburgen (Francine Pickney), Timothy Hutton (Jack Meadows), Tom Wright (Flash Phillips), Marc Blucas (Scotty Duval), Miguel Ferrer (Lester), Charlayne Woodard (Loretta), Alan King (Murray Silver), Richard Edson (Steve Tregaskis) and Alexander Lewis (Terrell Bernard).

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  1. Anonymous Says:

    Jeffrey – It’s great to see you blogging here. Might you consider turning on your Atom feed for those of us who are RSS-addicted, something you can do in the edit window under Settings–>Site Feed? Just a suggestion….
    Beth, from u2sermons.blogspot.com

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