Sunshine State

(John Sayles, USA, 2002)


"You can't live in the past!", cries a character in John Sayles' Sunshine State. Anyone who comes to this film with a knowledge of such previous Sayles works as Lone Star (1996) will instantly realise that the statement signals a heavy irony.

Everyone in a Sayles film lives in the past. Their unfinished business goes back through the generations of families, through the twisted lines of partnership and betrayal that once built a community. And the physical world around them is no less saturated in history, from shady real estate deals to the questions of who is buried where and why.

Sayles is an ambitious filmmaker, but his skills rarely match his good intentions. Sunshine State is, happily, one of his more watchable and satisfying pieces. Set in Florida, it traces the intersections of a large number of characters who are dealing with private and public changes.

Marly (Edie Falco) is by far the most arresting and fully fleshed character. Dealing with the ruin of her marriage, running the family beach motel, coping with eccentric parents (beautifully played by Jane Alexander and Ralph Waite), pursuing casual affairs and sparring with a sneaky property buyer (Timothy Hutton), Marly is a sparky Everywoman hip to the ways of the world but also sadly resigned to her lot.

The rest of the characters form the usual Sayles mosaic. Privileged, old, white men gripe about the modern world while playing golf; a successful Afro-American couple (Angela Bassett and James McDaniel) come home and suddenly find their upward mobility a source of shame; delinquent kids burn kitsch town monuments and henpecked husbands secretly plan their escape.

Sayles in an intelligent but uninspired filmmaker. I never feel while watching his movies – with the striking exception of the adventurous Limbo (1999) – that he discovered something in his material, the setting or the actors that surprised him or altered his approach. The themes and meanings are rigidly predetermined in the script. Sayles films exactly what he writes, and then edits exactly what he shoots.

Ultimately, I suspect that Sayles was once a disgruntled screenwriter who became a director to ensure that his words made it to the screen intact. Almost two decades along, his scenes still have the same, stodgy, inert manner. The actors are fine and what they say is often captivating, but the images and sounds rarely rise about a television-style functionality. Sayles is so enamoured of the independent, low budget creed that it fatally inhibits his creativity.

For the viewer, there is the undoubted pleasure of seeing a smart, provocative view of the world dramatically etched into place, piece by piece. But there is no thrill, no mystery, no revelation, and hence precious little cinema, in a John Sayles film.

MORE Sayles: City of Hope, Passion Fish

© Adrian Martin October 2002

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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