Film Review – Suncoast
There are a lot of heavy themes running all throughout Suncoast (2024). Many of them can be politically triggering, involving the never-ending debate between pro-life vs. pro-choice, religion, and the ethics of death. Plenty of people have strong feelings about these topics, no matter what side of the fence they stand. But the film’s biggest shortcoming is that it plays things right down the middle. By choosing to be apolitical, it ends up not having very much to say about anything. It’s ok to have differing viewpoints – sharing ideas in constructive ways can help others possibly see the world in a new light. That is not what happens here. It refuses to be confrontational, and thus becomes forgettable.
Which is too bad, because writer/director Laura Chinn includes a ton of earnestness to her narrative. There’s a lot of good elements, mostly centered upon the coming-of-age story of her protagonist, Doris (Nico Parker). Doris is a high school teen living in Florida with her overbearing mother, Kristine (Laura Linney). Why is her mom so uptight? Because Doris’ brother Max (Cree Kawa) is in a vegetative state and does not have much time left to live. He is moved into a hospice facility, where they are to wait for the inevitable to occur. But apart from standing watch over her brother and shouldering the verbal abuse from her mother, Doris is also a young person wanting to do young people things. She forms a connection with a group of classmates, all of whom want to party and get into trouble. Doris gets pulled between two extremes: Being present for her brother and building the friendships she just made.
On a macro scale, much of Suncoast follows the familiar beats of the coming-of-age story. A person learning what it means to be independent while anchored by the naiveite of youth are the main ingredients of the genre. However, Chinn adds several tangential threads that don’t mesh well with the main story. The inclusion of the Terri Schiavo case – a real life legal battle over the ethics of life-prolonging care – didn’t fit with Doris’ story. The lingering presence of Schiavo introduces us to Paul (Woody Harrelson), a pro-life activist who strikes up a friendship with Doris. Although Harrelson is a veteran actor who can pull off both comedic and dramatic roles, he is saddled with a character that isn’t logical. Not only is the notion of a middle-aged man hanging out with a teenager seem weird, but the fact that the two so openly talk about themselves as though they’ve been lifelong friends doesn’t sit right.
A major weakness of Suncoast is in the character development. While Nico Parker delivers an authentic, realistic portrait of a young woman stuck between two worlds, everyone around her acts like a caricature. The circle of friends she joins – including Brittany (Ella Anderson), Laci (Daniella Taylor), Megan (Ariel Martin), and Nate (Amarr) – are all constructed as one-dimensional types. They are all shallow, rowdy, and horny, with very little to offer. Now before you say it: Yes, many people their age have this mindset. I’ve known plenty of people who looked, sounded, and acted like that (Hell, I may have been one of them). But they are stark contrasts to Doris intellectually and emotionally. Doris is made out to be smart and thoughtful, even when exhibiting a rebellious nature. Her newfound “friends” don’t operate in the same gear. One of her key interactions is with Nate, whose biggest offering is describing his pet parrot. There’s not much explanation as to why Doris would want to hang out with these people in the first place.
When it comes to stories about life and death, it’s obvious that characters would go through a rollercoaster of emotions. But Doris’ mother is an example of this taken too far. Laura Linney is a fine actor, but she is either miscast or written/directed to exist in one state of being: cruel. Kristine is so abusive, so manipulating, and so over the top that I never believed her as a fully formed person. She constantly lays guilt on Doris, hovers over her every move, demeans her at every opportunity, etc. When Doris asks to take a break from her brother, Kristine attacks her with a barrage of passive-aggressiveness. Chinn tries to balance this by highlighting how much of a connection Kristine has with her dying son. The stress of seeing her child wither away while still maintaining a job is meant to explain why she is temperamental. But it goes too far. In a revealing moment, one of the facility’s counselors asks Kristine how many children she has, to which she mentally slips up and answers “one.” It’s nearly impossible to connect with someone so nasty to their own family.
Visually, the film is captured with a straightforward, unobtrusive style. Bruce Francis Cole’s cinematography provides a bright and colorful aesthetic, indicative of the sunny and humid Florida environments. Actors are photographed usually in mid-shot, or your basic over the shoulder angle during conversations. There are moments where the camerawork and editing make its presence known. When Doris first introduces herself to her classmates, the frame shifts into a wide shot with all of them looking towards the camera, immediately amplifying her sense of isolation. In a bit of slapstick comedy, there is a running gag where Kristine’s truck refuses to close from the back, no matter how hard she tries to shut it. Despite being a miniscule annoyance, it does provide a minor relief from all the drama taking place.
There’s a good film somewhere inside of Suncoast. I’m sure Laura Chinn’s heart was in the right place, and I have no doubt that much of what we witness came from real life. But the final product does not gel cohesively – the pieces work separately rather than as one.