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Suncoast (A Movie Review)


Starring Nico Parker, Laura Linney, Woody Harrelson, Ella Anderson, Daniella Taylor, Amarr, Ariel Martin, Cree Kawa, Pam Dougherty, Matt Walsh, Keyla Monterroso Mejia, Scott MacArthur, Danielle Henchcliffe, Jason Burkey, Andrea Powell, Parker Sack, Andrew Dicostanzo, Elliott Sancrant, Karen Ceesay, Orelon Sidney and Brandon Arroyo.

Screenplay by Laura Chinn.

Directed by Laura Chinn.

Distributed by Searchlight Pictures. 109 minutes. Rated R.

Writer/director Laura Chinn’s semi-autobiographical coming-of-age drama rides on a very specific high concept – some may even say a slightly obscure one, at least at this point in history.

It is based upon a true circumstance in Chinn’s life. In the early 2000s, her brother was placed in hospice because he was dying of brain cancer. That in itself is horrific and tragic enough. However, fate placed her brother in the same medical facility as Terri Schiavo, a brain-dead former insurance agent who became a political and legal hot potato when her husband wanted to remove her feeding tube so that she would not be kept alive when she had no quality of life.

Her parents sued her husband in an attempt to keep her alive. Governor Jeb Bush and the state of Florida (where Schiavo was in hospice) jumped in and tried to legally force the husband (and the care facility) to keep her alive against their own will. It became a huge story and political battle about euthanasia, full of angry protestors (on both sides), vitriol between family members and hundreds of news stories. Even the then-President (George W. Bush) weighed in with his opinion.

The experience of being even on the outskirts of such a huge partisan scandal, at the same time as dealing with her own tragedy, has obviously had a considerable influence on Chinn’s life. She has revisited it before as a writer. Even before this film, the actress/comedian/writer had written about what happened in a section of her book Acne.

Chinn has changed some of the specifics of the story, including fictionalized versions of her character and others based upon people she knew. She even changed the name of the health facility where it all happened – calling the place Suncoast, when the actual name was Woodside Hospice House.

So, yes, Terri Schiavo was an important part of Chinn’s life.

Still, it’s been nearly 20 years since the Schiavo case. She died in March of 2005. And, honestly, there have been hundreds of political firestorms since then. I remember the story, but I’m a political and historical junkie. And even I had forgotten more than I remember about what happened in the case.

Nineteen years on, how many people have a strong memory of the case? More to the point, there is nearly a generation of younger people – who really should be a huge part of the audience for this film – who probably have never even heard the name. For example, actress Nico Parker, who does a spectacular job in the lead role here, was a baby when Schiavo died. What really are the chances that she had ever heard of her before receiving this script?

How many people will watch this film specifically for the Schiavo connection?

More to the point, honestly, the most interesting parts of Suncoast have absolutely nothing to do with the scandal or the demonstrations outside of the hospice. A teenaged girl dealing with death, her prickly relationship with her mother who often was so wrapped up in her son’s illness that she took her daughter for granted, and a shy girl’s attempts to be normal and make friends while in the middle of her own tragedy – all of these things are much more intriguing, and important, than the political firestorm going on nearby.

To a certain extent, the film’s brush with history works against it. You could cut the entire Schiavo situation from the film, and the film would not be harmed. In fact, it might be better.

Because the real story here is the strained relationship between Doris (Parker) and her mother Kristine (Laura Linney) who are having trouble dealing with each other while they are dealing with the inevitable tragedy speeding their way. The scenes in which Parker and Linney spar and push each other’s buttons have some of the strongest acting in this early year.

There is also a surprisingly smart section when Doris finally makes friends by offering up her home as a party spot while mom is staying over with her brother. However, unpredictably, these girls are not just using Doris – even after the party idea is blown-up by Kristine showing up unexpectedly during a partially unclothed game of Truth or Dare – and actually become close, understanding, giving friends who are there for Doris when she needs support.

Which brings us to perhaps the most confounding part of Suncoast. Doris befriends a middle-aged protestor named Paul who she runs into in line at a nearby restaurant. Woody Harrelson is always a welcome presence, so you nearly overlook the fact that his relationship with Doris makes no real sense. Why is this fifty-something widower spending so much time hanging out with a 16-year-old girl? Get your mind out of the gutter, it doesn’t appear to be sexual. He seems to see himself more as a mentor, a friend and a shoulder to cry on. But why is he there?

Honestly, although he’s supposedly one of the Schiavo protestors, he doesn’t seem the type. Yes, he is gutted by the loss of his late wife, but honestly, he barely appears to be the reactionary type. At one point in which he vilifies Schiavo’s husband for wanting to allow his wife to die naturally, it feels unnatural coming out of this caring, mostly easy-going guy’s mouth. Also, he often blows off the protests just to be there for Doris, whether she wants him to or not. He just seems to be protesting because it is something to do.

Also, what does Doris see in Paul? As a father figure? As an escape from the bleakness of the clinic? As a potential romantic partner for her mom down the line? It is never really clear, to the point that the whole subplot feels a bit awkward.

However, the scenes where mom and daughter come to terms and where Doris grows into her young womanhood while juggling tragedy with more base teen girl issues keep Suncoast fascinating. These are the stories that Suncoast should really be concentrating on telling.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2024 All rights reserved. Posted: February 9, 2024.


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