John Sayles’ Sunshine State begins with a scene that looks mysterious, even ominous. A pirate ship’s sail burns in the night, the flame seeming to float in the darkness. The camera cuts to a boy’s face, watching the fire, and then, as the camera pulls out, you see that he’s in a parking lot, that this is not a ship at all, but a parade float. Within a couple of minutes, the cops arrive to pick up the culprit.
This brief opening sets up various thematic threads — the commodification of history, the deceptiveness of appearances, the gaps between generations, the paving of paradise to put up a parking lot — in a manner that is at once deft and abstract. While young Terrell (Alexander Lewis) is plainly in trouble here, the arrest is actually the least of it (you learn later in the film that when he was even younger, Terrell witnessed a terrible familial violence). He’s a quiet kid, not inclined to talk much with his guardian, Eunice (Mary Alice), though it’s also apparent that, in their silence, they share a mutual trust and affection. In Sunshine State, this closeness, however unspoken, is unusual: it’s a film about the many ways that people come to be disconnected, from each other, their pasts, and their homes.
As it happens, the pirate ship float that Terrell has burned is (or rather, was) a prominent fixture in Plantation Island, Florida’s annual Buccaneer Days parade. Its destruction makes life hard for Francine (Mary Steenburgen), the Chamber of Commerce official who is in charge of the festivities. As corny as these festivities might appear to you — treasure chests loaded with local merchants’ wares; folks dressed in pirate “gear” (with bandanas, eye patches, and plastic parrots on their shoulders); booths selling “pirate” vittles — for Francine, the effort to pull it all together is exhausting. “You have no idea how hard it is to invent a tradition,” she wails. What she doesn’t see is how disconnected this invention is from anyone around her.
The disjunctions between Terrell and Francine — angry black boy and anxious white lady — have parallels in most every storyline in Sunshine State. The residents of Plantation Island have long been divided into two communities, black and white, and increasingly, they are divided along generational lines as well, generations defined in part by who owns land, who feels committed to traditions, and who is yearning to move on. Shot on and modeled after Amelia Island, this area includes an African American enclave called Lincoln beach (modeled after American Beach, Florida’s first black resort community, established in 1935 by insurance entrepreneur A. L. Lewis) — it’s a region in transition. While some old timers want to hang onto some semblance of their history, many residents are selling their property to developers, who plan to reshape the area into an upscale resort.
Against this background, two complex women are dealing with their own transitions: Desirée (Angela Bassett) is returning to Lincoln Beach to reconcile with Eunice, the mother who sent her away some 20 years earlier, when the 15-year-old Desirée became pregnant. All these years later, Desirée resents what she perceives as Eunice’s embarrassment at her daughter’s “showing [her] color.” AT the same time, Eunice resents what she sees as Desirée’s abandonment of her family. Equally proud and strong, the women find it difficult to compromise; fortunately, their reunion is somewhat tempered by the presence of Terrell and Desirée’s new husband, generous and even-tempered Chicago anesthesiologist Reggie (James McDaniel).
Desirée is also dealing with another issue, unbeknownst to her mother, that is, the father of her child (who died shortly after birth) has come back to town. The former Florida Flash (Tom Wright), a college football legend until his knees gave out, is in town fronting for the white developers, encouraging black landowners, including Eunice, to sell (he says he sees it not as “speculation, more like preservation”). And he, in turn, must confront resistance in the form of Dr. Lloyd (Bill Cobbs), a diehard civil rights activist who, while understanding that the movement created a mixed economy where all the “little people” might be equally exploited, still tries to rally the locals to oppose the encroaching development: When Reggie asks if this is “an ecological thing,” Lloyd smiles and nods: “We’re trying to save an endangered species, us.”
A second but inevitably intertwined narrative revolves around Marly (Edie Falco), a 6th generation Islander, finally realizing that managing her father’s restaurant and hotel on Delrona Beach (the white section of the Island) is not what she wants to do. In order to move on, however, she has to admit that she has her own desires — to herself, her stubborn, once staunchly segregationist, now blind father Furman (Ralph Waite), and her steely mother, Delia (Jane Alexander). Until now, Marly has put her life’s energies into pleasing her parents (her father still mourns the deaths of her twin brothers, local basketball stars who drove their car off a bridge after a high school party) and also resisting them (she ran off with her rock singer husband [perfectly gawky Richard Edson] and worked as a Weeki Watchee mermaid). She still sees her decision to return home and run the hotel as a kind of defeat, a surrendering of her dreams (at one point, she says, she wanted to be an oceanographer), and manages her frustration with a quick wit and curt manner.
Even as developers come calling on Eunice to sell her beachfront property, so too do they approach Marly about the hotel. Spotting one skulking across the street, Marly sneers, “Buzzards,” and marches outside to challenge him. He turns out to be less of an ogre than she anticipates, however; landscape architect Jack Meadows (Timothy Hutton) is passionate about the aesthetics of his work (admiring, for instance, Frederick Law Olmsted). And for the most part, he tries not to think about the politics and economics. When Marly accosts him, he says he’s just trying to imagine what the place will look like “without any buildings on it.” She snaps back, “Oh! Like you’re kind of mentally undressing it?”
Though she’d never admit it, Marly inherits her humor and resilience from Delia, a drama teacher, theater manager, and conservationist who has long begrudged Furman’s investment in the hotel (which she sees as a cheesy corruption of the land long before the developers show up), and settles for community theater and working with local disadvantaged and otherwise “troubled” kids (she calls herself “the Sarah Bernhardt of Delrona Beach”). When Terrell is sentenced to community service for his arson, Desirée takes him to Delia, her own former teacher; Delia assigns him to make a coffin for her, as she’s playing the dead mother in a stage adaptation of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.
It’s hard to miss the major symbolism here, and in that way, as well as in its attention to intricate sociopolitical tensions, Sunshine State, recalls Sayles’ previous work. His filmmaking isn’t subtle, but it is often moving and resolutely complex. As much as Delia, Francine, and Eunice try to hang on to traditions (whether invented or historical, as much as these might be differentiated), Marly and Desirée are trying to make sense of the intersections of past, present, and possible futures. As they struggle, the film makes clear that, as abstractions and ideals, as well as lived experiences, history and what’s to come can’t be congruent or continuous. Whatever sense they might make emerges from those individuals and communities who put in the work.