' Cinema Romantico: My Great Movies: Sunshine State

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

My Great Movies: Sunshine State

John Sayles, often referred to as the Godfather of American Independent Cinema, a man who did not graduate from film school, writes, directs and edits his own films while earning the financing for them by working as a hired hand on mainstream motion pictures (he did a complete uncredited rewrite on the Oscar nominated script for "Apollo 13"), is among the most politically and civically minded filmmakers working in our country today. His films are often intricately woven tapestries of very specific communities contained within - or around - our borders with significant casts that conjure up distinct sensations of place and time. I believe 2002's "Sunshine State", set on fictional Plantation Island, divided between the mostly white town of Delrona Beach and the mostly black town of Lincoln Beach, detailing property developers attempts to snag up these areas for commercial purposes, that is the resolute highlight of his canon.

"Sunshine State", most refreshingly, does not present us with an idealized view of the state of its title. "There were palm trees in the postcards," says one character. But not in the movie. The Florida of the film has windswept beaches sans sunbathers, rundown establishments called the Sea-Vue Motel with outdated nautical-themed decor and it all coincides with a local pageant called Buccaneer Days, the staple of which - a wooden pirate - has been set afire by a wayward 13 year old named Terrell (Alexander Lewis) in the movie's opening scene. Later, at his hearing, Terrell's court appointed defender sighs "It's a wooden pirate, your honor" to which the Judge harshly, and comedically, replies "An icon in this community, nontheless." It shows both a casual disregard for the community's history and, yet, how the community desperately clings to that same history.

There is that ancient quote about how if we don't consider the past we are condemned to relive it. Well, what if you have no choice but to relive it? What if you're, say, Marly Temple (Edie Falco), a sixth generation Floridian tasked with running the Sea-Vue Motel and it's accompanying restaurant because it's what her father did, her father who may be legally blind but is not about to cave in to these greedy developers running amock who want to make a "full frontal assualt" and establish the Sea-Vue location as their "beachhead"?

It seems pretty obvious this isn't the life Marly wants. Her mother (Jane Alexander) didn't want it, and didn't want it so bad she will drive six blocks out of her way not to see the motel. But there Marly is anyway. "I used to hate working there when I was a kid and now I got three girls who hate working there as much as I do." Thus, another character wonders why she keeps doing it. Her reply: "Poetic justice."

The counterpoint to Marly is Desiree Stokes (Angela Bassett) who has just returned to Lincoln Beach for the first time in ages with her husband (James McDaniel). Desiree had longed to be an actress and now - resignation coating her voice - explains she does infomercials. (One character describes this as "A temporary engagement in the world of commerce," which is just classic Sayles.) Slowly, wonderfully, piece by piece, Sayles unravels Desiree's story. At the age of 15 she became pregnant with the local football hero, Flash Phillips (Tom Wright), and left town. But did she really leave town of her own accord or was it at the insistence of her mother Eunice (Mary Alice) who feared the scandal and backlash? Each scene with Desiree dredges up something else and deepens her plight in this place she does not particularly want to be.

Francine (Mary Steenburgen), meanwhile, of the chamber of commerce, is trying desperately to "Disney-fy" and drum up interest in Buccaneer Days. She is so obsessed with this mission, in fact, that she remains completely oblivious to her husband's (Gordon Clapp) grab-bag of issues as he unsuccessfully, and rather pathetically, tries to off himself a couple times. When she sincerely calls him her "rock" it is downright laughable.

There were obvious possibilities for this story. Two communities - one white, one black, and you can see where this might be headed, but Sayles avoids that trap. So too could it easily have slipped into a Capra-esque tale of heroic small business owners valiantly battling back against the bourgeois businessmen, closing shots of Marly and her family standing defiantly before approaching bulldozers. But as the esteemed Roger Ebert noted, the film is not the "progressive line about the little guy against big capital" but an "observant, elegiac, sad movie, about how the dreams of the parents are not the dreams of the children."

I am not the most politicized person and I have no interest in films that contain message-deliverers masquerading as people. No question Sayles has something to say and deploys people and dialogue for his means at times but what sets it apart - what sets most of Sayles' work apart - is his extrordinary ability to dramatize whatever message may be lurking. His scenes in "Sunshine State" are all interesting on their own terms and focus primarily on the wide range of characters for who they are and what they want.

Consider the sequence introducing us to Marly's father (Ralph Waite). It begins in extreme close-up as he rants about how man has lost his way - "They've got us so zoned and regulated and politically corrected" - and slowly pulls back to a wide shot as eventually we realize he is waiting for his insulin shot, the nurse set to deliver it not even paying attention, the ravings of an old man. (This will be underscored later when he rants and raves about how football was better in the old days.)

Or consider Jack Meadows (Timothy Hutton), the landscape architect hired by the real estate mavens to perform a feasibility study. He could have easily been representative of evil intentions, seducing Marly - mention is made of someone for the developers to be on the "inside" - when they begin a casual relationship. Or he could just as easily have met Marly, become enamored with her plight and chosen to fought back, heroically, against his employers. Instead he is presented, simply, as a person with a job to do. He is divorced, with kids, and now goes across the country to wherever the work takes him. That's it. No ulterior motives.

He is one of many rich characters in Sayles' extensive gallery which makes Falco's turn that much more impressive. Her work here rates as one of the most underseen, undervalued performances of the 00's. Stephanie Zacharek of Salon bemoaned the fact Falco "is saddled with a bad bleach job and perennially faded summer tops", a criticism containing so little sense it baffles. What, should she have a personal stylist and designer clothes? Uh....that's not who she is. A bad bleach job and perennially faded summer tops is the character. Dressing up for Marly is a pair of jeans rather than jean shorts.

The entire film she projects a wide eyed gazed that seems to be looking past anyone and anything around her, as if yearning to be anywhere else than where she is. She talks with an accent equal parts hurried and weary, especially when dealing with her parents and loutish ex-husband (his employment of the oft-used line "You can't live in the past" is the greatest in cinematic history because of the context, which I will not give away), and when her dad begins a story by saying "Remember Clarence Green?" the nod she gives lets the audience know that, oh yeah, she remembers Clarence Green and she remembers because the story he's about to tell he's already told two dozen times. Why she even gets the Poignant Look Yourself In The Mirror Scene in which she cleverly strips it of any poignancy by merely dismissing herself as an "Idiot." Two words: Exasperated Patience. And that patience is giving out.

The first two acts begin with and the film is punctuated by scenes of four men, headed up by Murray Silver (Alan King), on a golf course, swinging their clubs and pontificating on the state of just about everything in dialogue that certainly will not strike the viewer as realistic. In the director's commentary Sayles says he wanted this quartet to be less a "greek chorus" than reminiscent of "the Mount Olympus gods", showing how these sorts of people - people in "the back room" - make the decisions. They work, I think, to show how people so often choose to bury the past rather than reflect on it. Ah, but then sometimes you have to bury the past or risk having it pull you under.

A key scene occurs when Marly and Jack get drunk together and explains she is a former "Weeki Wachee Girl", an underwater performer dressed as a mermaid, and that the most important part was maintaining a smile while holding your breath. Later, laying on a darkened golf course, looking up at the stars, she returns to the thought: "The important thing is to keep that smile on your face. Even if you're drowning."

"Sunshine State" is all about people trying to keep that smile on their face.

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