Welcome to sunny Florida. Now go home.
In modern day Florida, Marly Temple (Edie Falco) runs her father’s motel in the predominantly white, sleepy seacoast town but secretly dreams of doing other things, but she knows her father would never sell. Desiree Perry (Angela Bassett) has returned home to the predominantly black neighboring town for the first time since leaving, assuming the worst but determined to show her mother the success she has made for herself alone. Between these two women, their friends and family, a local festival, and an encroaching real estate developer, many revelations are about to be made.
Florida is itself a misconception: a tropical island paradise that you don’t need a boat to get to. It’s mostly hype, of course, thanks to clever developers and slick packaging. Writer & director John Sayles has crafted a bleak, not-so-happy view of what many parts of the sunshine state are really like as developers snap up and exploit what hasn’t already been turned into a theme park, resort, or retirement community.
While the setting is important (narrated from a golf course by Alan King and friends bragging about their shady deals), it’s all backdrop for the characters, and there are at least five subplots going on at once. Each one is introduced, handled with care, and mostly resolved. However, the running time of the film feels very stretched as a few of the stories start to run adrift with no specific point other than “Gee, that’s terrible.” If any two of the weaker three stories could have been combined or if one could have been dropped, a very good film could have finished much tighter. Of course, what happens in each subplot is key to the overall story with plenty of surprises along the way; there won’t be any spoiling of them here.
The women of “Sunshine State” are the focus, and the cast excels. Angela Bassett always stands out, whether she’s feeling the self-imposed weight of her family obligations or pretending to be genuinely interested in selling infomercial cookware. Edie Falco shows her range by doing something decidedly different from Carmela on HBO’s The Sopranos. And while a smaller part, Mary Steenburgen portrays the consummate control freak as she slaves over making a touristy festival as perfect as she envisions, even if no one else seems to care about it at all (just ask her husband).
There’s a hollow feeling when watching this film, as if peeking over a wall at Disneyworld and seeing the actors portraying animated characters with their heads off taking a smoke break. But as the ending of “Sunshine State” suggests, people you don’t know (and who don’t know you) can change everything, and the choice you make to deal with it is who you really are.
Extra Note: Watch for Officer Bryce (Jon Coen) with his scripted opening ceremony speech. Not only will he make you the best hot dog in Jacksonville, Florida, he’ll also tell you a few stories about the production, too (not to be repeated here for liability purposes).
(a three skull recommendation out of four)