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SUNSHINE STATE (director/writer/editor: John Sayles; cinematographer: Patrick Cady; music: Mason Daring; cast: Edie Falco (Marly Temple), Angela Bassett (Desiree Perry), Jane Alexander (Delia Temple), Ralph Waite (Furman Temple), Mary Steenburgen (Francine Pickney), Timothy Hutton (Jack Meadows), Gordon Clapp (Earl Pickney), Alan King (Murray Silver), Miguel Ferrer (Lester Forrester), Perry Lang (Greg), Tom Wright (Flash Phillips), Bill Cobbs (Dr. Lloyd), Mary Alice (Mrs. Stokes), James McDaniel (Reggie Perry), Alex Lewis (Terrell), Richard Edson (Steve); Runtime: 141; Sony Pictures Classics; 2002)
“It is an indelible epic American story about two families, one black and one white, facing change in both their inner and outer lives.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

John Sayles’ 13th film “Sunshine State” is set in the New South, in the fictional town of Delrona Beach, Florida. In the sub-plot, the town is celebrating a make belief tradition of pirate lore created by the local Chamber of Commerce which is championed almost single-handedly and without proper appreciation by Francine Pickney (Steenburgen). She’s disappointed that the Buccaneer Day festival is so poorly attended by the locals. Her banker husband (Clapp) feels he can’t overcome his tremendous gambling debts and comically fails in every attempt to commit suicide, which is one of the running gags throughout. The couple can also be seen as emblematic in an extreme way of everyone else in the community — they can’t communicate with each other.

In this ambitious film, the main topics covered are race relations, the segregationist past and the integrated future, the encroachment of real estate developers in the old community, culture in a small town, and the lingering effects of capitalism in the region. The leftist leaning Sayles is unique as a white director, who dares cover the effects from racism that lingers in the New South. He also pokes holes in the myth of a small town as being either picture perfect or a place that is venomous. He has the passion of a sociologist studying how a community suddenly changes and how unaware most people in the community are of the changes until it is too late to do anything about it. These subjects tackled by the indie filmmaker are in many ways similar to those chosen by such distinguished writers as Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner, as its human interest themes are ones that commercial films either shun or refuse to handle with proper depth. But mostly this is a film about coming to terms with the past by both blacks and whites in the small town they live in and whether or not the locals should accept the offer of the Exley Plantation Real Estate Developers and sell them their beachfront property. The film is driven by history and by the personal lives of two families — one white, the other black.

To underscore the history lesson, a Greek chorus consisting of 4 golfers playing on the Plantation Island course expound on how Florida was a dream that was sold. Murray Silver (King) is someone who sees the Big Picture of how to make money by putting nature on a leash, as he is beyond the reach of any of the locals in understanding how to become rich and live a life of leisure. He’s disappointed in a comical way about how unimaginative it is to now make easy money, but how colorful and exciting it was to chase a dream in the past. To prove his point he gives a history lesson about how the Spaniards either exploited the Indians as slaves or killed them when they first landed in Florida because they believed there was gold here when they saw the chief wearing a gold necklace. It was later learned the gold came from Spanish boats that capsized.

Marly Temple (Falco) comes from a sixth generation of white Floridians. She is running the motel business she hates for her aging blind father, Furman Temple (Waite). He’s despondent that his twin football hero sons from the time the schools were segregated are dead and yearns for the good old days of the past. Marly is a realist, who is blunt and has a self-deprecating humor due to her disappointments. She got over a bad marriage to her failed rock singer husband Steve (Edson), who is now trying to scheme his way through life as he is forced to take odd jobs to survive. Intuitively she knows she has to leave this town to regain her life. In the meantime she messes around with a local golf pro, Scotty, who is ten years younger, and who dumps her to go on the P.G.A. tour. She also takes a chance and becomes romantically involved with nice guy transient architect Jack Meadows (Hutton), who works for the Plantation real estate firm. Each of the men love their work more than they love her. Marly’s regal southern belle mother, Delia (Alexander), can’t stand reality and escapes by becoming the theater teacher for a non-profit theater. She speaks in florid sentences and specializes in helping troubled youngsters of all colors. But she proves that she sees the Big Picture and can be a realist when she wants to, as when she acts as business adviser to Marly and cynically secures the best possible deal from the real-estate developers.

Returning home as a thirtysomething married woman after leaving because she was pregnant by a star college football player when she was 15, Desiree (Bassett) revisits her good mother, Eunice Stokes (Mary Alice-a noted theater actress), who made one mistake of sending her away and has not been forgiven for that. She has made good up north by becoming an actress in commercials and infomercials, and arrives with her straight-arrow good guy Boston anesthesiologist husband, Reggie (McDaniel), as she tries to come to terms with her mother and her small-town roots. Since she does not correspond with her mother, she’s surprised that a disturbed and withdrawn 13-year-old boy Terrell (Lewis) is living with her. His drugged-out father killed his mother and himself and Mrs. Stokes. The boy’s aunt took him to live with her. As the film opens, Terrell burns the main float in the Buccaneer Day parade and since he was caught he attends a closed court hearing with the judge and Mrs. Stokes. He’s sentenced to do community service with Delia’s theater group. As a coincidence, Desiree also had Delia as a teacher. It is shown that the whites and blacks still live separately, but there is some contact between them (though each group thinks they live in isolation).

Other interesting characters who are not related to the two families but who come into the picture as parts of the overall small-town changes are Dr. Lloyd (Cobbs), Flash Phillips (Wright), and Lester Forrester (Ferrer). Dr. Lloyd is an elderly and stately African-American man who remembers that the best thing about segregation was that the blacks stuck together, and now he can’t get enough of his own people interested in protesting to raise their awareness how the developers intend to rape the land they live on in Lincoln Beach and who only aim to get rich off them. Flash is the black ex-football player whose road to pro football stardom was ruined by an injury, and who is now a shill for the well-oiled developers and is quite willing to exploit his own people while pretending he’s doing them a favor. Lester is the one who greases the Planning Board’s palms with money and who sees the Big Picture of how to make money from a dream.

This was a fascinating political drama and character-driven story, that has a marvelous ensemble cast and the recognizable star power of Angela Bassett and Edie Falco who standout from the rest of the cast. Humor is the film’s staple, as each character delivers a comical interpretation of who they are portraying. It is an indelible epic American story about two families, one black and one white, facing change in both their inner and outer lives. A truly inspired film about America, whose continuing story is an adventure in social and capitalistic Darwinism.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”