John Sayles is an edgy auteur--literally. His films are frequently "border films," taking him around the edges of the U.S.: New York and Jersey in The Brother from Another Planet and City of Hope, Alaska in Limbo, Mexico in Men With Guns, Texas in Lone Star, Louisiana in Passion Fish, and now Florida in Sunshine State. In these and other films, Sayles never fails to get the lay of the land before he begins to obsessively mine the human characters who reside there. Sunshine State, typically, betrays Sayles' sometimes overreaching ambition--as he tries to encapsulate myriad aspects of Floridian life and history--but what can I say? Overreaching ambition looks good on Sayles.
In an only occasionally slack 141 minutes, Sayles tells the story of about fifteen principal characters--and countless other peripheral ones--trafficking around Plantation Island. That name frames a story of Northern influence (largely economic) on the Southern state, the importance of the land itself, and the uneasy cohabitative divide that both binds and segregates the black and white communities there. Sayles places a pivotal woman (orbited by a group of characters related by blood, business, or pleasure) on each side of the divide, and each is as similar to the other as they are opposite. Edie Falco (The Sopranos) plays Marly Temple, who resignedly runs her father's motel as development vultures pressure her to arrange a sale of the property. Angela Bassett plays Desiree Perry, who arrives, uncomfortably, in town after a 25-year absence, only to find that the place, the people, and even the past, have changed from what she always thought she knew. Filling out the cast of dreamers, schemers, and depressives are Mary Steenburgen, Timothy Hutton, Jane Alexander, Ralph Waite, James McDaniel, Bill Cobbs, Gordon Clapp, and Tom Wright, among many others.
Sayles' breadth cannot help but impress, taking in the complex social and political forces working on the characters (described by Waite's character as tides too powerful to fight). Sayles is nothing if not pointed, with a "Buccaneer Days" theme week running through the better part of the film as modern-day pirates pillage Florida property from locals. This pointedness can be heavy-handed, punching up the issues dear to Sayles to match the weight of dramatic scenes that can play like Julliard course work. So, okay, Sayles is schematic, and he's didactic, but he's also fascinating and unique as a filmmaker who tells stories that insist on thought and challenge convention. He coaxes performances of grace, ease, and humor, and he crafts a beautiful frame for the film (anchored by wicked golfer Alan King) that alone makes the film a worthwhile tourist trap. More power to him.