[Screen It]

(2002) (Edie Falco, Angela Bassett) (PG-13)

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Drama: Various people deal with the presence and effects of progress and the past in their formerly sleepy coastal communities.
In the coastal community of Plantation Island, Florida, real estate development is threatening to change the way of life for the locals. Among them is Marly Temple (EDIE FALCO). Once a performing mermaid, her days of underwater swimming, as well as her marriage to Steve Tregaskis (RICHARD EDSON) and more recently relationship with golf pro Scotty Duval (MARC BLUCAS) are over.

She currently runs the local motel and restaurant founded by her now disabled and ornery father, Furman (RALPH WAITE), while her mother, Delia (JANE ALEXANDER), continues to run the local community theater group.

Unlike Marly who's lived there her entire life, industrial/infomercial actress Desiree Perry (ANGELA BASSETT) has reluctantly returned with her anesthesiologist husband Reggie (JAMES McDANIEL) to her hometown of Lincoln Beach, a nearby African American community also threatened by developers. Her opinionated mother, Eunice Stokes (MARY ALICE), still lives there and is caring for a young and troubled boy, Terrell Bernard (ALEXANDER LEWIS), but isn't as concerned about the ensuing development as is long-time activist Dr. Lloyd (BILL COBBS).

Meanwhile over at Delrona Beach, Francine Pickney (MARY STEENBURGEN) is trying to organize the town's annual celebration, but isn't happy that participation and enthusiasm for the tradition have waned. Her depressed and debt-ridden husband, Earl (GORDON CLAPP), has even bigger problems and repeatedly tries to commit suicide.

As the various locals try to get on with living their lives, the pending real estate developments, as well as the arrival of various people upset their plans. For Desiree, it's the appearance of Flash Phillips (TOM WRIGHT), the former football star and her former lover who's fallen on hard times. For Marly, it's Jack Meadows (TIMOTHY HUTTON), a landscape architect who's arrived to transform part of the town into a gated community and has become interested in her.

As Murray Silver (ALAN KING) and his golfing buddies discuss the changes that are occurring around them, the rest of the locals try to deal with the developments and pending changes, as well as their pasts, as best as they can.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
Although it may not qualify as the number one spot for sunlight in the U.S. regarding solar heat or as far as days that are clear versus cloudy, Florida is known as the sunshine state. Due to its year-round warm weather, abundant water and tourist attractions, people flock to the state year after year for those solar rays.

Yet, many tourists forget that the state is also home to 16 some million residents who not only deal with the perpetual tourists, but also the changes they directly and indirectly bring, all while trying to live and get on with their own lives.

Such are the various tales found in writer/director John Sayles' latest film, "Sunshine State." Like "Limbo," "Lone Star" and "City of Hope" before it, the film is a generally well-told, populist tale of dealing with progress as well as one's past and related dreams and disappointments.

Whether he's telling the story of a woman trying to run a family business in the face of development, a woman returning to her hometown after years of being away, or another woman discovering tradition is disappearing in her small town, Sayles delves into the individual but connected stories in a generally well-told fashion.

Like so many of his previous efforts - and unlike many other contemporary releases - this one features solid to strong performances from his cast that embodies three-dimensional characters that feel natural and completely believable, rather than fabricated and/or contrived.

Much like many films from Robert Altman, the characters come off as real from the get-go, with their stories instantly connecting with the viewer. Although the various plots don't interconnect, interact with, or impact the others in as much of a fun, interesting or entertaining way as with the efforts delivered by Altman or Paul Thomas Anderson, they're certainly engaging.

Similarly, they're heavy on the dialogue that has both its good and bad points. Sayles certainly has an ear for such talk and much of what flows from his characters' mouths is as natural and believable as are they. At the same time, however, the writer has a tendency - as has been the case with some of his other films - in a going a bit too far and long with the verbal symbolism.

When an older man tells a teenager to not be afraid of the "undertow" - literally and figuratively - we get the symbolism the first time around. Yet, Sayles keeps pouring it on with the not so subtle analogies and does so in various other scenes as well.

In fact, an entire subplot featuring Alan King ("Rush Hour 2," "Casino") and a group of golfers is nothing but symbolic in nature as they show up from time to time in what amounts to essentially a modern day equivalent of the old Greek chorus.

Partly because of that verbosity as well as Sayles' overall directorial style and pacing, the film often comes off as dreadfully slow. Although lack of tempo and/or action isn't necessarily a death warrant for a film of this genre and style, the slow and methodical pace does prevent it from being as electrifying, compelling or engaging as it might have been.

Even so, and notwithstanding the populist slant and verbal symbolism bits, the performances are mostly strong across the board. They include Edie Falco ("Judy Berlin," TV's "The Sopranos") as a woman sorting out her relationships - including with an outsider played by Timothy Hutton ("Deterrence," "The General's Daughter") - while trying to run the motel and restaurant started by her father - played to ornery perfection by Ralph Waite ("Cliffhanger," TV's "The Waltons").

Angela Bassett ("The Score," "What's Love Got to Do With It") and James McDaniel ("Malcolm X," TV's "NYPD Blue") make for a credible married couple having to deal with her reluctance to return home to meet her manipulative mother - solidly played by Mary Alice ("Catfish in Black Bean Sauce," "Down in the Delta") - and then interacting with longtime, former and newcomer locals played by the likes of Bill Cobbs ("Random Hearts," "Air Bud"), Tom Wright ("Palmetto," "Matewan") and Alexander Lewis (making his feature film debut).

Of the various subplots, the one featuring Mary Steenburgen ("Life as a House," "I Am Sam") and Gordon Clapp ("Rules of Engagement," TV's "NYPD Blue") as a married couple that's unhappy for disparate reasons is the weakest, and the performers aren't given enough time or material to do as much with their roles as one would like. Those playing the various developers getting even more of the short shrift and come off as the least three-dimensional of all the characters.

Nothing spectacular and not without its share of faults, the film works, for the most part, thanks to those performances and the strongly written, credible and realistic characters from which they stem. While things aren't always sunny in "Sunshine State," the effort is bright enough to shine among so many other dull, repetitive or pointless releases. It rates as a 6.5 out of 10.

Reviewed May 14, 2002 / Posted July 12, 2002

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