Running Time: 109 mins
UK Distributor: Disney+
UK Release Date: 9 February 2024
WHO’S IN SUNCOAST?
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
WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?
Laura Chinn (director, writer), Kevin Chinoy, Oliver Obst, Jeremy Plager and Francesca Silvestri (producers), Este Haim and Christopher Stracey (composers), Bruce Francis Cole (cinematographer), Sara Shaw (editor)
WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
A teenager (Parker) struggles to care for her terminally ill brother (Kawa)…
WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON SUNCOAST?
In many ways, writer-director Laura Chinn’s debut feature Suncoast is fused at the hip of the early-to-mid 2000s. For one, it’s set in that decade – 2005, to be exact, and you’ll know why in a moment – but it also displays the kind of filmmaking and storytelling that dominated the independent film festival circuit around that time, in films like Little Miss Sunshine, Napoleon Dynamite and beyond.
Sure enough, just like those films, Suncoast also got its start at Sundance (the one just gone, in fact, where it debuted under the film festival’s U.S. Dramatic Competition line-up), which feels very appropriate because it is exactly the kind of film that, had it been made and shown at any point during that time period, would have automatically been considered a classic of that era. In 2024, though, it’s a slightly different story, for while the film has enough good intentions for it to be a pleasant viewing experience, it carries a lot of familiar and somewhat predictable tropes that have certainly aged over the last twenty years.
The film is set in Florida during, as mentioned earlier, the year 2005, when teenager Doris (Nico Parker) has spent the majority of her teen years up to this point helping her high-strung mother Kristine (Laura Linney) care for her older brother Max (Cree Kawa). Having been in a vegetative state for years, Max is now being moved into the hospice of the title, where he is expected to spend his final days. However, it also happens to be the same facility where Terri Schiavo – the vegetative woman at the centre of a controversial right-to-life debate that dominated news cycles around that time – is also staying. So, the place is often swarmed with predominantly religious activists protesting the decision to remove Schiavo’s feeding tube, arguing that all life is sacred, et cetera.
Doris soon befriends one of them, the laid-back widow Paul (Woody Harrelson), as she also attempts to break away from her forced caregiver role and be what she believes to be a normal teenager: hanging out with school friends, drinking at parties, smoking some weed, and so on. All the while, she must contend with the grief that she and her well-meaning but domineering mother are undoubtedly going through.
The film clearly has a deeply personal angle to it, with Chinn basing her script on events during her own teen years, including a sibling who also unfortunately passed after an extended illness. To what extent that events in Suncoast mirror Chinn’s own personal life is unknown to me, but however many liberties she’s taken with the overall story – including, I presume, having the whole Terri Schiavo case running parallel beside the more private one here – it’s undeniable that the filmmaker has poured a lot of herself into this narrative, lending it a noticeable soul as a direct result. The same can be said for her direction, as Chinn gives the film a bright and sunny disposition (not least because it’s set in Florida) to counteract the weighty themes of grief and delayed adolescence, which cinematographer Bruce Francis Cole is able to balance without the gentle tone being completely disrupted, with there always being a personal touch that could only come from someone who’s lived through this exact moment in time.
Furthermore, the performances are very good here, from Woody Harrelson leaving an impression as a character who’s more or less an extension of the actor himself (all that’s missing, apparently, is him smoking a joint every now and then), to Laura Linney who lends plenty of humanity to a character who can often feel extremely overbearing and, at times, needlessly cruel. However, this is Nico Parker’s film, and the young actor excels at inhabiting her character’s initial social awkwardness – undoubtedly a result of having to spend most of her vital teen years looking after her sick brother – and eventual blossoming into a rebellious and spirited teenager.
Every now and then, the film tries to paint Parker’s Doris as a rather selfish character, who would rather be anywhere else than sit with her sibling who can’t even communicate with anyone, but it’s the kind of natural selfishness you’d expect a teen at that particular age to behave, and certainly not the type that makes her an incredibly unlikeable protagonist. Parker leans into her character’s underlying sweetness for an effective lead performance that makes her a striking presence in every single scene, and she easily holds her own opposite her two Oscar-nominated co-stars.
However, while Suncoast has nothing but good intentions, at times it is almost laughably an early-to-mid 2000s movie, complete with many conventions that you would normally expect in a coming-of-age flick from the same era. From the vapid group of friends that Doris starts hanging out with, to an appropriately indie musical score, Suncoast relishes in its familiarity, but unlike Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird (which was set around the same time and dealt with a number of similar teen issues), it rarely seems aware of the fact that it is fairly generic material which, despite the nobleness on the part of Chinn and her actors, they aren’t entirely able to completely shake off.
As for its more topical debate surrounding the Terri Schiavo case, the arguments it presents on both sides are relatively thin, and amount to very little that hasn’t already been brought up around this particular incident. Sure, the Schiavo controversy is not the main focus of the film, so there’s not really any need to go into all that stuff, but in having it be such a prominent presence in the background, it’s hard to ignore its overall impact on the narrative, so the fact that it’s fairly light on that discussion point feels like a bit of a missed opportunity.
Despite its ultimate familiarity, Suncoast is a pleasant enough film that doesn’t shake up the formula established in other, better early 2000s movies, but has enough soul and likeability to give itself a decent presence within that field.
SO, TO SUM UP…
Suncoast is a pleasant coming-of-age film which is undoubtedly personal for writer-director Laura Chinn, who also gets some great performances out of her actors, especially young lead Nico Parker, but its conventional trappings and at times laughable connection to early-to-mid 2000s storytelling ultimately leave it mildly overcast.