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Sunshine State

  • compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2002 1 Jan
Sunshine State

from Film Forum, 07/11/02

It may be hard to believe, but there are intelligent dramas for grownups out there in the midst of the summer blockbusters. One in particular is drawing raves from the mainstream press, and now religious press critics are adding their applause. It's the new film from John Sayles, the director of such memorable dramas as The Secret of Roan Inish, Lone Star, Eight Men Out, Matewan, and The Brother from Another Planet.

Sunshine State moves the viewer through beach towns north of Jacksonville, Florida, where real-estate interests are trying to buy up property and bribe local officials. This threatens the natural environment and troubles those who respect the state's heritage. In this context, two women are struggling through changes in their relationships and ambitions. Marly Temple (Edie Falco) manages a motel and loves the place, but she is also anxious to move on with her life. Desiree Perry (Angela Bassett) has come back to Florida to visit her mother for the first time since she took off as a teenager. Their conflicts raise questions about time, change, racism, and relationships.

The critic at the USCCB gives the film guarded praise: "The unhurried pace … may cause the viewer's mind to wander a bit, as the film sometimes sags under the weight of the talky narrative. Yet Sunshine State and its characters remain memorable. … It lingers in the mind—blemishes and all—as a frieze about lonely people trying to make connections."

J. Robert Parks (The Phantom Tollbooth) is more enthusiastic: "Sunshine State is as relevant as they come. Hot-button issues such as racism and the conflict between development and environmentalism interact with the universal themes of family, love, and history. … If Sayles is trying to teach us anything, it's that we can't escape our history and the place we grew up in. We can only confront them, learn about and from them, and then move on in our lives while always recognizing that those aspects will always be with us."

Those critics who prefer that films omit non-Christian perspectives may have some trouble with it. "Sunshine State is a complex, well-made tale," admits Tom Snyder (Movieguide), but he concludes, "Although the movie has positive Christian content with some moral elements, including a nice church scene, it also contains many problematic worldview elements and plenty of mostly lightweight foul language."

Mainstream critics are impressed, as usual, with Sayles' work. "[The film] has some of the wittiest writing he's ever done for the movies and some of the best acting he's ever coaxed out of his performers," says David Denby (New Yorker). "Sayles's movie is not really an attack on corruption. Though Sunshine State has elements of nostalgia, it offers something tougher and more good-humored than the usual piety about lost innocence. By the end … one gets the impression that the march of progress may not be an entirely bad thing. The fate of Americans, after all, is to pull things up by the roots, including themselves, and then move on. That's our 'tradition.'"

from Film Forum, 08/01/02

Others caught up with John Sayles's latest film, Sunshine State. This complex web of stories about a Florida island community emphasizes the rewards of being adaptable in a changing world and the dangers of romanticizing the past. This tension is clear not only in a confrontation between wealthy developers and the community's longtime residents, but in the troubled relationships of a single restaurateur, her parents, and her public (Earlier reviews here).

Darrel Manson (Hollywood Jesus) praises the film as "a valuable chance to consider the world we are in not only on the surface, but also behind the smiles and the tears that make up life. Sunshine State has been called preachy and didactic, and that's a fair assessment. But it is important for us to look at the tension of the real and the perceived. And Sayles does a good job of showing us many of the ways that we cover over the realities that we wish to avoid."

I bought a ticket this week as well, and found it to be one of the most truthful and rewarding films I've seen this year. The actors, especially Edie Falco, Angela Bassett, Timothy Hutton, and James McDaniel, are completely convincing in their complex roles. It is refreshing to see a film that shows how challenging and confusing it can be to love one another. Most mainstream tales would have you believe that broken relationships and fractured communities can be easily fixed with a confession, some tears, and some laughter right on into "happily ever after." By portraying the bitter with the sweet, Sayles's world is far more realistic, and thus when it arrives at a hopeful conclusion we are left with more than pithy platitudes. (My full review is at Looking Closer.)

So, if moviegoers bypass the Powers that be and seek out more rewarding fare like Signs and Sunshine State, they might find that summertime at the movies isn't a waste of time after all.