On an island off the northeastern coast of Florida, the lives of two local women are changed as Sunshine State delves into their family history, their dreams and their frustrations.
The problem with a film in which characters stand around philosophizing about the nature of life is the fact they are standing around philosophizing about the nature of life. It can make for a compelling character piece, or it can bore you to tears. Sunshine State does a little of both. The story centers on the locals of this island and how the regional real estate developers are looking to change the sleepy beachside community into a manicured resort area. One woman, Marly Temple (The Sopranos' Edie Falco), is tired of running her retired father's motel and restaurant. She starts a tentative affair with a landscape architect (Timothy Hutton) but is really looking for a way out--perhaps to sell the business to the developers. The other woman, Desiree Perry (Angela Bassett), returns home for a visit to show off her new husband, Reggie (James McDaniel). But she has a tense relationship with her mother (Mary Alice) after being sent away by her parents at 15 for getting pregnant. Plus, it seems the small black enclave in which she grew up is also being eyed by the developers. As their community is about to change, both Marly and Desiree must deal with the sometimes overwhelming weight of family history and family expectations while trying to discover their own paths in life.
Of course, this kind of film is an actor's dream--all characters and words with very little action. The array of talent in Sunshine State is vast, with many standout performances but unfortunately just not enough substance to keep them all riveting. Falco comes off the best as the bored Marly, dealing with her long-winded, ornery father (played by the long-winded and ornery Ralph Waite) and her free-spirited mother (played by the delightful Jane Alexander). When Falco is on the screen, the film takes on a quirky sensibility that writer/director John Sayles probably intended for the whole film. Her scenes with Hutton are packed full of interesting twists--and she definitely has one of the better lines of the film: ''Having sex with me this drunk would be like being at the dentist....You know something's going on in there, but you don't know what.'' Bassett doesn't pull her part off as well. She shows the right emotions as Desiree, but somehow her storyline seems forced, and the same goes for the supporting players around her. The rest of the cast--and it's considerable--fill in the blanks. Mary Steenburgen as the organizer of the local historical event known as ''Buccaneer Days'' and Gordon Clapp as her gambleholic husband with suicidal tendencies, are also standouts.
Sayles is an eclectic filmmaker, to say the least. Obviously a brilliant writer, he picks his projects carefully and usually puts his own unique stamp on his films, such as the powerful little gem Lone Star and the historical Eight Men Out. The framework and the setting of Sunshine State does set it apart from the rest. The director has a genuine affection for the Florida landscape, shooting the entire film on Amelia Island, one of the only places in history where blacks were allowed to go to the beach in segregated times. Sayles loves to dabble in the past and, with some amazingly beautiful surroundings, he is able to capture a certain historical feeling. Yet, Sayles veers off from his usual style in how he sets his story. The writing is, at times, bitingly clever, but it seems that Sayles is channeling director Robert Altman by trying to interweave the stories of several characters. Unfortunately, he doesn't do nearly as good a job as Altman. With too many cooks in the kitchen, you end up concentrating on only the characters that interest you thus tuning out the rest.
Set in the lush surroundings of Florida, Sunshine State is a true ensemble piece. Unfortunately, it's only some of the characters and their stories that keep your attention, while the rest of the film puts you to sleep.