SUNCOAST – Review
With 2024 only about six weeks old, filmgoers are getting a very interesting family comedy/drama that isn’t a “holdover” from the previous year’s limited Oscar-qualifying run. As with last weekend’s SCRAMBLED, this is the feature film directing debut of a writer/actress, though she’s not working in front of the camera. And this is almost an autobiography, with some name changes and a few names that were real people in the news. Actually, they were in the headlines, so it’s a fictionalized story with a true event as its backdrop, similar to the Jack and Rose romance of TITANIC. And it all figures into an engaging “coming of age” story that happened in the sunny, but often turbulent, vacation spot known as SUNCOAST.
And, as you might have guessed, that spot was down in Florida about twenty years ago. Teenager Doris (Nico Parker) is stressed out about beginning her junior year at a brand new school while juggling her homelife, which revolves around her disabled older brother Max. Their single mother Kristine (Laura Linney) must leave Doris in charge while she struggles to make ends meet in the food service industry. The big reason for the recent move is to get Max into the local hospice facility as his brain cancer is in its final stages. Unfortunately, that facility has a much more famous patient, Terri Schiavo, who is at the center of a passionate euthanasia debate in the US. So much so that the clinic is constantly surrounded by protesters. As Kristine is hyper-focused on Max, Doris can wander out and befriends one of the picketers, an amiable widower named Paul (Woody Harrelson), who becomes a surrogate papa to her. When Doris does get to her private Christian high school, she feels isolated until she eavesdrops on a group of popular young women who don’t have a location for their weekend party. Since mom is spending all her time with Max, Doris offers up their modest home “in the boonies”. Naturally the “kegger” gets out of control, but Doris is able to get things back in order before a parental “drop by”. Can Doris get accepted by the “in crowd” or is she being used? And what will happen if Kristine finds out? Could this betrayal and the impending passing of Max destroy their familial bond?
The story’s focus and its beating conflicted heart is Doris played with remarkable skill and savvy by the gifted Ms. Parker, perhaps best known for her work in the Tim Burton remake of DUMBO. Sure we’ve seen plenty of awkward lonely teens in the world of “indie” cinema, but Parker conveys the huge weight (not quite the world, but close) on Doris’ young shoulders. Yes, she’s worried about the impending loss of her big bro, but she feels guilty for yearning to experience the joys of teenage life during this dark time. Parker wisely doesn’t make her a victim, as we see her make some selfish, dangerous decisions while not destroying our empathy for Doris, even as she lashes out at those in our corner. The main supporter there is Paul played with low-key energy and strength by Harrelson. Sure, he gets on his soapbox or pulpit, but we get to see the man inside the “card-holder behind the police barricades. He’s not so strident and singled-focused that he can’t reach out to this young woman so desperate for a parental “lifeline”. And she does need one, as her only parent is almost smothered by the fear of future grief and tragedy. Kristine is truly the most compelling and most divisive character of the story and the superb Linney tackles the challenge with full gusto, giving a bravado performance. I’d describe her as Aurora Greenway of TERMS OF ENDEARMENT in the big hospital screed (“Give her a shot!!!”) turned up to eleven, but that would dismiss the nuance Linney brings. Even after Kristine uses guilt to prod Doris, there’s the feeling that she herself could drown in the wave of darkness washing over her. And she gives us a hint that Kristine knows that both of her kids may disappear from her life. This is a career highlight for the exceptional Linney.
The aforementioned writer/director is actress Laura Chinn, who makes this very personal “slice of life” a very compelling and expertly crafted “calling card” for her future film work. As I just stated she has guided the main acting trio to utilize their gifts in new ways, but she’s also turned several “teen movie” cliches on their heads. We’re programmed to view the popular cliques as sneering harpies (ala “The Plastiques”) who delight in delivering “burns” and verbal abuse. And certainly, these kids are taking advantage of Doris at first. Then we see how they connect and bring the wounded woman into their circle, even trying to “up” her dating skills, while urging one of the team to “move on” from a “player”. That’s just one of the ways that Chinn constantly surprises us. It’s easy to take satiric ‘swipes” at the uptight moralists of the school and the picket line, but we’re shown that they’re more than comic “targets”. “Dying with dignity” is discussed and debated, but Chinn never pushes one view over to the forefront, letting us ponder the choices. Best of all is the unique mother/daughter dynamic that is the driving force of the plot. Perhaps that’s what shines the brightest in the somehow life-affirming SUNCOAST.
3.5 Out of 4
SUNCOAST is now playing in select theatres and streams exclusively on Hulu beginning on Friday, February 9. 2024