Sunshine State

Starring:
  • Carmella
  • "Economic Progress!"
  • Alan King Playing Golf

 

Directed by John Sayles "Oy! Another damned gopher! With my luck, I'll either get struck by lightning or the Bush's will try to play through. "
A Fascinating Look at Love, Condos, and Pirates

When I think of the Ozark Mountains in southern Missouri and northern Arkansas, I personally think of a region with incredible natural beauty and a vast, rich history. The Ozarks are a place with more natural caves and spring rivers than anywhere else in the country. The region was filled with the history of the Native Americans, the French fur traders, and some of the most significant battles of the Civil War. But when most other outside people think of it, they think of gun-totin', self righteous Krazy Konservative Khristians (KKK). They think of bucktoothed inbreeds who like to butt hump Ned Beatty. (Even though, for the record, that was Georgia.) They think of John Ashcroft and the Assemblies of God or worse: They think of Yakov Smirnoff and Branson-"Las Vegas as planned by Ned Flanders." The history and nature of the Ozarks in direct contrast with the "progressive" human development and control was something I thought about a great deal while watching John Sayles' new civic lesson Sunshine State. During his career as a writer-director-producer-editor, Sayles has moved from geographic regions and stories about Appalachian union strikes (Matewan) to Irish fairy tales (The Secret of Roan Inish) to Chicago baseball scandals (Eight Men Out) to the mysterious misery of Alaska (Limbo). I often wondered how one guy was able to soak up and comprehend so much about so many different parts of history and about so many different parts of the world. But as I watched him juggle characters and plot points amidst alligator farms and golf courses, I realized that he had tapped into feelings and sentiments that I felt about my area. That somehow, he has captured some of the most basic human understandings of the places that we inhabit.

Plantation Island, FL is a sleepy coastal town with a history notorious with battles between the Natives and pirates. That tradition continues even to this day, although the natives are a bit more white and possess Southern accents while the pirates arrive in rental cars and bulldozers in place of the traditional ship and bow. While there are many inhabitants of this sleepy, coastal hamlet profiled in Sunshine State, the film places its center on two women. Marly (Edie Falco) has inherited a run-down restaurant/motel from her retired father. She had other plans for her life, but the real world and a deadbeat husband (Richard Edson) forced to begin her dead end path from being a mermaid at a local roadside attraction to her current position as waitress/disinfranchised business owner. It seems that the most recent pirates...er, developers have set their eyes on her business, and she is steadfast to defend her position. She may be doing this simply for the will of her ill old pop, but it is one that requires the developers to pull out the big guns. This includes Jack Meadows (Timothy Hutton), a divorced landscape architect who seems to have set his sights on something other than the beachfront property. Oh la la. The other story revolves around Desiree Perry (Welcome back, Angela Bassett!), a women who left the town when she was fifteen due to some maternal issues, both with mama (Mary Alice) and with her own impending pregnancy. She returns to reconcile with her family and to confront the man whom she was impregnated. (Shhhh! That's a secret.) The events of these women's lives coincides with the newly developed "traditional" Buccaneers Celebration (Encouraged by the Chamber in order to boost interest) and with a coordinated protest against the new development from the nearby Lincoln Beach, a predominately black community. Hardly any of this description includes the various subplots that involve the banker attempting to fund his dog-betting addictions to the local drama teacher trying to rehabilitate troubled youths, but one can be sure that Sayles ties all of it nicely into the bigger picture.

Most of Sayles best work acts as entertaining civic lessons. Indeed, he sometimes will include scenes that function almost for the sole purpose of cinematic notetaking: There are long passages of exposition that get taken care of during the local Planning and Zoning meetings or lectures by teachers attempting to explain the aspect of Plantation Island's history to a student. Sometimes this comes off as laborious or heavy-handed. Fortunately, Sunshine State may get ranked as one of Sayles' lightest and funniest films and this includes that beforementioned . Certainly, it contains the very dense and deliberate character development of his earlier work, but it must be something about Florida that makes his work here seem cheerier and breezier. Thanks to the likes of Carl Hiassen, Dave Barry, and the 2000 elections, we all know what a bunch of oddball characters exist in the state. But they have problems too, and Sayles seemingly humanizes them more so than any other recent piece of work centered in Florida. There's no sign of union strikes or of long-forgotten murder cases. This is a film about these quirky characters trying to hold on to their heritage and, in turn, to their dignities. This is ultimately a piece that focuses not only on both History vs. Development and Man vs. Nature, but our human desire to understand each side of those debates. It's a film that says that we clearly should not live in the past, but understands that we are truly nothing without our pasts. It's a film that says humans have an almost instinctual need to control nature, but ultimately nature reminds us that we can only be a part of nature until we destroy it. Clearly, we know what side we are to root for, but Sayles is too smart to make the bad guys seem all that bad and one-sided. The character of Jack is written and properly played by Hutton as a guy not intent on destruction, but as a guy who sees progress as something that does not have to destroy its surroundings. He is advocating on behalf of his company with this philosophy in mind. Most films would have made this character a cardboard, mushstache-twirling Altman-esque villian, but it's more complicated here. It's very easy to see why Marly falls for him. There's too much gray area for her to really overevaluate the situation. It's pretty good stuff, and Sayles is good about making the entire piece balanced in the same way. I loved the Greek chorus of golfers, led by veteran comedian Alan King, that show up to debate the issues presented in the film. Honestly, these guys are meant for laughs but no shots are ever cheaply made at their expense. It's their outlook and we are asked to merely evaluate it. Ultimately, their viewpoint is the setup to a great punchline in the film's ending, but it work in the scheme of the film all the same.

The two big battles in the film are expansive and seemingly endless, but Sayles put in his two cents and crafts a great film around the two. He is helped largely by his cast. Hutton and King have already been mentioned, but Bassett and Falco are two big reasons for the film's success. Bassett conveys a lot of pain with her portrayal of Desiree, but she also gets to show some compassion and understanding when she realizes that she has herself to blame among her family, lovers, and environment. It's really good stuff from a really good actress that hasn't been seen in awhile. Falco, though, has a special place in my heart that began with her pitch-perfect job as Carmella Soprano in the landmark television program. Here, she shows she's just as good on the silver screen as Marly. Not only does she handle her Southern accent and chemistry with Hutton well, but she also expresses the feelings of lost dreams of lost hope. The scenes where she imagines returning to her role as a mermaid would probably come off as absurd if it were not for her absolute conviction in pulling it off. It's also really interesting to see her put all of this character's heart and soul into a fight that is not her own. The power of both of these performances should garner at the very least award nominations, let alone wins. They are required to be the rocks in the crazy swirl of this film, and they remain solid all the way through.

Sunshine State was set in Florida, but it could have been about the Ozarks, about the Rockies, or about any place where people have strong feelings about their surroundings one way or the other. There is something about our roots or even about our current surroundings that we will never be able to escape. It seems to seep into our minds and our spirits like a strong smell that gets into the fabric of our clothes. I don't expect Sayles to ever find his way down to Table Rock Lake where he will film the conflict between the Missouri Department of Conservation and Jim Stafford, but I can at least take comfort in the fact that he took the time and energy in his films to show me that there are people out there who feel the same way. Movies almost have a God-given mandate to connect the audience to the characters, and Sunshine State proves that Sayles is indeed one of the masters of this connection. Check it out, but be sure to bring a pair of high swamp waders.

The Pitch:
2 Lone Star
Plus
2 Team Rodent
Equals
4 Sunshine State
See It For:
Edie trying to figure out how to get that Anne Heche look off her face.