September 13, 2002
The only constant, it is said, is change. Nobody has to remind the residents of Plantation Island of that cliche. Change is the order of the day on Plantation Island, the fictitious Florida setting for “Sunshine State,” the latest film from screenwriter-director John Sayles. And nobody on the island, it seems ? not the well-to-do black folks in Lincoln Beach, not the civic leaders in slightly upscale Delrona Beach, not the island’s small-business owners ? is immune from the coming sea change.The tidal wave of change (it should come as no shock to an Aspenite) is coming courtesy of Exley Plantation Estates, a big development company from somewhere else. (The face of the company, at least on Plantation Island, belongs to Sam Northrup, as in up North). Plantation Estates is licking its chops over the potential of turning Plantation Island from a peaceful, slowly evolving community into a manicured resort for retirees and the wealthy. And the development is changing Plantation Island even before the first swamp is drained: In “Sunshine State,” the mere presence of the landscape architects, the money men, and the urban planners is already transforming the place. In an interesting angle, Sayles portrays the developers as driven not necessarily by greed or power, but by something more fundamental. It is in the developers’ blood to take untouched land, tame it and sell it. It is what they do. And in some of the best scenes in “Sunshine State,” they even philosophize and joke about it. The film opens and closes with a group of golfers ? probably, but not explicitly, the actual heads of Plantation Estates ? waxing poetic about the inherent beauty and logic of taking plain, old land and turning it into a desirable commodity. The scenes of the old duffers, led by a wisecracking Alan King, are always shot from below, making the developers come off as a magisterial Greek chorus, far removed from the lives affected by their actions.Those affected lives run across the board, from Marly Temple (Edie Falco), who has inherited the job of running the ages-old, low-budget Sea-Vue Motel & Restaurant from her father; to Francine Pickney (Mary Steenburgen), a civic leader futilely trying to boost the town’s spirit with the hokey Buccaneer Days celebration; to Dr. Lloyd (Bill Cobbs), an aging black activist determined to keep the developers from destroying Lincoln Beach. The changes threatened by the impending development are not the only things contributing to the uprooting of Plantation Island. One of the central characters in “Sunshine State” is Desiree (Angela Bassett), whose connections to the future of Plantation Island are tenuous. Desiree grew up on Lincoln Beach but left long ago, sent away on the heels of an unwanted teenage pregnancy. She has returned to Plantation Island to show off her trophy husband, an anesthesiologist (James McDaniel), to her mother (Mary Alice), whom Desiree hasn’t visited in years. For Desiree, the changes come about not from the onrushing future, but from confronting her past. She is reacquainted with her old flame, Lee “Flash” Phillips, a high school football hero whose career was cut short by injury. Seeing Phillips and visiting her mother stir up a bunch of disturbing old memories in Desiree. Sayles seems to be saying that change is going to come, if not through the efforts of Plantation Estates then from somewhere else. And the film also observes that change is not something that happens only in the present, but has been going on forever.While Sayles doesn’t come down particularly hard on any side in the development battle, “Sunshine State” goes to pains to point out the compromises, and the cheapening of life, that comes with the changes. There is a sense of fatalism that runs through the film. Changes may not be catastrophic, but they are rarely for the better. Plantation Island reflects a tawdry world, where small commercial gains are valued above tradition and pride. “Life moves on,” says Flash Phillips, justifying his shadowy role with the developers, who are trading on Phillips’ status as a long-ago idol. “Shit gets bought and sold. There’s a handful of people who run the whole deal. Then there’s the rest of us, who do what they say and get paid for it.” Listening to Phillips’ justification is Desiree, who pursued a career in show business, and has ended up at the bottom of the show-biz pile, doing cheesy infomercials and industrials. And in Sayles’ view, there’s not a lot of sense in fighting the tide. Marly is resigned to the woes of her life, but she still comes off as a woman wise enough to know how not to make her life worse. Instead of romantically holding onto the Sea-Vue, she is all in favor of cashing out. She also strikes up a romance with Plantation Estates’ nice-looking landscape architect Jack Meadows (Timothy Hutton). Marly’s mother, Delia (Jane Alexander), has long insulated herself from the world by losing herself in community theater and Audubon Club meetings; she comes off looking wise and well-adjusted for her choice. The ones who come off as fools are those, like Steenburgen’s Francine, who take up arms against the winds of change. (Frustrated with the sparse turnout for her Buccaneer Days, she complains, “People don’t realize how hard it is to invent a tradition.”)As Marly’s ornery father tells the troubled teenager Terrell, who grew up yards from the ocean but is afraid to swim because “There’s an undertow?: “Of course there is. There’s always going to be one of those. The trick is, you don’t try to fight it. You just swim parallel to the shore till the pressure eases up. You struggle with that whole wide ocean, you’re a goner. No matter how strong you are. No matter how much grit you got. You try to take it head on, it’ll pull you under.”Sayles gives “Sunshine State” an evenhandedness that mostly works in its favor. There is no preachiness to the film. Sayles doesn’t set the story as the wicked developers against the noble preservationists, the blacks against the whites, the old guard against the nouveau riche. It’s everyone against ? or capitulating to ? the forces of change. “Sunshine State” ends on a cosmic joke that reinforces the view that there are elements bigger than any of us at work on the world.But Sayles’ neutrality also leaves “Sunshine State” somewhat bloodless and passive. A saving grace is the passion of the performances, especially those by Falco, Ralph Waite as her opinionated father, and King as the philosopher-developer.”Sunshine State” shows at the Wheeler Opera House Sunday through Tuesday, Sept. 15-17, at 7:30 p.m.