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Nearly all of John Sayles’ movies suggest that tradition and authenticity are everywhere under siege, threatened by corporate and personal greed, historical amnesia, and short attention spans. At the same time, Sayles himself is a picture of earnest predictability, churning out gentle polemics like clockwork and relying on the same actors again and again. As a result, to follow his work is a little like belonging to a congregation where the preacher has shown up every Sunday morning for the past 20 years to announce, in a warmly reassuring tone, that the world will shortly be coming to an end.
Sayles’ newest picture, Sunshine State, gives him a total of seven directing credits in the past 12 years. It takes place during the first week of May on fictional, charmingly underdeveloped Plantation Island, Fla. Though the setting is far from the West Virginia of 1987’s Matewan, the Ireland of 1994’s The Secret of Roan Inish, or the Texas of 1996’s Lone Star, the film will feel instantly familiar to the directors’ fans.
There is, above all else, the languorous pace, as if Sayles is trying to block the advance of quick-cutting modernity all by himself. There are also the hard-luck locals trying their best to resist the well-financed forces of change, as well as the speeches, sometimes poetic but often wooden and overlong, about how life is stacked against the little guy or used to be better in the old days. (This time out, there’s one about how football was easier to relate to when the players ran around in leather helmets.) There is Sayles’ refusal to indulge in pretty shots simply for the sake of aesthetics—politics and character staying always at the top of his priority list—along with his tendency to break that rule maybe three times during every film to give his audience a fleeting glimpse of some beautiful, perfectly framed tableau. (The cinematographer here is Patrick Cady, who shot the indie Girlfight.)
And there is, finally, the local resource at issue. In most of Sayles’ films that resource is ostensibly natural but also has a spiritual or psychological counterpart. In Matewan, for example, it was coal and the integrity of the working man. In Sunshine State, it’s unexploited coastline and the kind of innocence that drives high school ambitions.
At the center of the shifting, Altmanesque story is Marly Temple (Edie Falco), a hard-drinking divorcee whose parents are the closest thing the area has to civic stalwarts. Her blind father, Furman Temple (played with gruff wisdom by Ralph Waite), has long owned the Sea-Vue Motel on Delrona Beach, which Marly now unhappily oversees; her mother, Delia (former NEA chief Jane Alexander), runs a local theater company and teaches acting to troubled kids. Over in nearby Lincoln Beach, a disappearing bastion of the black middle class, the Temples are mirrored by an African-American family headed by wise matriarch Eunice Stokes (Mary Alice), whose daughter Desiree (Angela Bassett) has come back for a rare and uncomfortable visit along with her anesthesiologist husband, Reggie (James McDaniel).
Spinning out farther from the focal point of the story are Jack Meadows (Timothy Hutton), a landscape architect hired by one of the developers who begins a weary fling with Marly; Flash Phillips (the excellent Tom Wright), a former high school football star trying to work any financial angle he can; and a handful of shady developers who talk about real estate using the metaphors of war planning. They target the Sea-Vue as the “soft underbelly” of the island, “the point of weakest defense,” and a predictable struggle unfolds.
As is the case in most of Sayles’ films, there’s a lot to admire in Sunshine State and not much to purely enjoy. Confident under the director’s competent, generous hand, the ensemble cast gives a collection of performances to match those in any American film this year. Still, Sayles seems to take pride in dashing dramatic hopes, diffusing or simply abandoning every standoff just before it reaches a climax. One character tries to kill himself repeatedly, and each time he’s pathetically unable to finish the job. Even a surprise revelation at the finish doesn’t resolve the crisis over development on Plantation Island as much as postpone it.
Sayles has been called the poor man’s Altman, but that’s unfair to both directors. He’s more like the anti-Todd Solondz, or everything Neil LaBute is not. Sayles very simply refuses to be cynical about any one of his huge brood of characters. He uses old-fashioned dramatic irony instead of the harder-edged Generation X kind. Sunshine State is typical in that way, though it is also a breakthrough of sorts for Sayles: The film feels deeper, more successful in handling a large cast and interlocking story lines than earlier efforts. If only in terms of craft, Sayles keeps getting better and better.
Near the end of the movie, Furman gets to recite a classic bit of Saylesian wisdom. He’s talking about what to do if you get caught in an undertow—and coincidentally providing a concise summary of Sayles’ attitude about engagement and protest in a world where homogenizing change seems inexorable, like the tide. “The trick is, you don’t try to fight it,” Furman says, turning his useless eyes toward the ocean. “You swim parallel to the shore ’til the pressure eases up. You struggle with that whole wide ocean, you’re a goner. No matter how strong you are, no matter how much grit you got, you try to take it head on, it’ll pull you right under.”
It’s a compelling bit of oratory, equal parts Gandhi and Chekhov, about picking your battles, and it seems genuinely faithful to the character. But it leaves you just short of dramatically fulfilled, like so many of Sayles’ speeches and choices. Nobody is asking the director to morph, suddenly, into Michael Bay. (God forbid.) But it doesn’t take a philistine to suggest that Sunshine State could use at least a touch more of splashy, heedless, head-on struggle. CP