From the extreme Alaskan northwest of his disappointing “Limbo,” John Sayles has moved diagonally to the far southeast of “Sunshine State,” marking a reasonably confident return to the sprawling, novelistic form of his “Lone Star” and “City of Hope.” Narrative shape of Florida saga seems to fit Sayles, who has always been a writer first and a director a distant second. Recalling some interesting comparisons and contrasts to Victor Nunez’s slice of Floridian naturalism, “Ruby in Paradise,” pic observes a wide range of folks in the fictional west coast communities of Delrona Beach and the proudly all-black Lincoln Beach, both set on Plantation Island and contending with commercial changes to old ways. Distinguished by Edie Falco’s superb perf as a gal in search of herself and a good man, Sayles’ latest novel-on-film will earn just enough critical support to keep it commercially afloat in indie and arthouses through summer’s lazy days.
Opening pair of scenes are so different — an atmospheric nighttime incident involving a boy torching a mock pirate ship, then a speech-filled scene with a golfing foursome led by a gabby Alan King — that it’s hard to tell where pic is headed. Subsequent 20 minutes intro a long lineup of characters in sun-drenched Delrona and Lincoln, with focus on two of them — Falco’s Marly, who operates a motel and coffee shop owned by her cantankerous, nearly blind father Furman (Ralph Waite), and Desiree (Angela Bassett), returning to her hometown from Boston for the first time in 25 years to visit mom Eunice (Mary Alice), with new husband Reggie (James McDaniel) along for the bumpy ride.
Developers from an adjacent yuppiefied resort community (Perry Lang’s angel-faced Greg and Miguel Ferrer’s sneaky Lester) aim to expand into the sleepy town, and Marly chats mostly with Jack (Timothy Hutton), the developers’ landscape architect, for info.
Shades of “City of Hope,” Dr. Lloyd (Bill Cobbs) tries to organize fellow Lincoln residents to stop the county commission from caving in to the developers, but he seems like a lone voice in the wilderness.
Meanwhile, Eunice, sizing up Reggie and cool to Desiree, who was sent away when she became pregnant, is like a mom to withdrawn Terrell (Alex Lewis), the budding pyromaniac from the opeing scene who’s put on probation.
Beyond the dominant themes of preserving human history and nature, with people forced to revisit their compromised pasts, “Sunshine State” is most interesting as a mural portraying lonely folk trying to make connections.
Sayles’ gives his now-familiar approach for interweaving themes and characters’ personal and public lives a full workout, and his film rises and falls on the substance of his content. His application of a steady, slightly slow pace allows his cast — all interesting choices, many plucked from TV — to play out scenes close to the rhythms of real life. It’s a naturalism, however, that sometimes becomes prosaic. Other local characters, include Marly’s mother Delia (Jane Alexander), whose taste for theater and ecology makes her an odd match for old racist Furman; former local football star Flash Phillips (Tom Wright), back in Lincoln buying up properties and a key to Desiree’s scandalized teen years; Marly’s burned-out ex-hubby Steve (Richard Edson), looking for a new get-rich-quick scheme; corrupt and conflicted commissioner Earl (Gordon Clapp); his wife Francine (Mary Steenburgen), trying to help the local CofC stage Delrona’s disregarded “Buccaneer Days”; and native American Billy (Michael Greyeyes), who works a bulldozer for the developers.
Falco, light years from “The Sopranos,” is exquisitely vulnerable and her scenes play well with Hutton, in his finest role in years as a good man who knows he’s sold out. Bassett feels robbed of what could have been a more powerful role, but, with the subtle McDaniel, is still quite effective. Waite and Alexander drift into complete cliches, while Steenburgen resists the cartoonish. Cobbs is perhaps the quintessential Sayles character here, a morally centered man on a mission.
Slightly washed out imagery captures how the Sunshine State really looks, and though most of Sayles’ filming is trapped in stiffly cut dialogues, entire pic absorbs the regional texture to an ambitious degree.