" Nobody goes into the valley of death. That’s why they call it the valley of death. "
— Grant Heslov, The Scorpion King

MRQE Top Critic

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The setting in Sunshine State is a small coastal town in Florida, relatively untouched by modern development. There is a motel, a bar, and a local parade honoring the buccaneers who stole the land from its previous owners. But Buccaneer Days won’t last forever. Developers are moving in and they want make this place a resort.

Given such a setting, one could think of a dozen angles from which to tell the story. Maybe a small business owner doesn’t want to sell to a development company. Maybe another does want to sell and get out of small-town life. Maybe someone has to fight to keep his house from eminent-domain destruction. And maybe a sympathetic developer is just doing what he’s good at, doing what he loves to do.

John Sayles, the writer-director of such intricately woven films as Lone Star and City of Hope, thought of all these angles, and more, and spun them all into a 140-minute film.

Twenty-Three

Newlyweds Bassett and McDaniel return to the Sunshine StateMost kids I know have already fallen asleep, and some of my adult friends’ are deciding what else to read instead of this review. I confess that even I, a long-time fan of John Sayles, found the material to be a little dry. But the filmmaking is outstanding, the characters are natural and believable, and the intricacy of the storytelling is something no other modern director would even try.

A quick glance at the official web site reveals 23 actors, 23 main characters. They are not all equally important, but they are all equally well-thought-out.

Desiree (Angela Basset), for example, is coming back home for the first time in ten years. She left in disgrace because her boyfriend, Flash Philips (Tom Wright) knocked her up. Since then, Desiree cleaned up her act and got married. Now she wants to introduce her new husband Reggie (James McDaniel) to her mother and her hometown.

Turns out Flash is back in town as well, buying up land on behalf of the new developers. A local football hero — one who actually played in the NFL for a while — can get things done much easier than an unwelcome developer from out of town.

Marly (Edie Falco) is the restauranteur who doesn’t want to sell. More correctly, her father Furman (Ralph Waite) steadfastly refuses to sell and Marly feels obligated to help run it. To Marly, the restaurant is a ball and chain that keeps her in town, but then again, where else is she going to go?

Marly’s mother Delia (Jane Alexander), on the other hand, loves Plantation Island and is involved in the community in a way that most people aren’t. She puts on plays using her cast of regulars, plus she takes on a handful of troubled youths as actors and propmakers as part of their community service.

Rounding out the characters is a Greek chorus of golfers, separate from and commenting on the action in the movie.

Depth Perception

You’d think with so many characters, a certain level of depth would be lost. But Sayles seems to make up for it in two ways.

First, he gets good performances from all his actors. Whether he coaxes the performance from them or whether he just gets out of their way is unclear. But each actor seems to have a very good grasp on what his or her character is concerned about. In this way, Sunshine State deserves comparison to Robert Altman’s great ensemble from last year, Gosford Park.

Second, Sayles introduces depth elsewhere. With a score of characters and a dozen or so plot threads, Sayles is able to delve into a community, into a place and a situation, like nobody else. If you’ve seen Lone Star or City of Hope, you understand how characters can be merely parts in a grander whole. If each character is a little more shallow for this approach, the same cannot be said of the overall film.

Mulled Coffee

If you’ve made it this far into the review, Sunshine State is probably a good bet for you. Go and admire the craft of America’s foremost independent filmmaker.

But Sunshine State won’t please all audiences. With so much going on, it’s hard to pull a single lesson from the movie. Someone asking “what’s it about?” won’t likely get a one-sentence answer. And because of this complexity, it’s hard to react. One can’t say “I agree” or “I disagree.”

In fact, with so much going on in the film, it’s hard to imagine any two people seeing the same movie. Each person will pay attention to and ignore different threads, depending on their personal taste and interest.

Sunshine State is a movie you quietly mull over afterwards, not something you get into a heated argument about over coffee. Maybe that’s the greatest disappointment. It’s a movie that leaves you thinking instead of talking.

Then again, maybe that’s not such a bad thing.