Sunshine State (15)

Review by Simon Bell

DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Commentary by John Sayles; Trailer.

FOR those unfamiliar with the films of writer-director John Sayles, some stern advice: Do your homework. "The Father of Modern American Indie Film", "The Saviour of US Cinema"… call him whatever you like, just SEE HIS FILMS. In fact, Indielondon can't praise him enough.

Most Sayles fans discovered their luminary via Lone Star, his 1996 masterpiece, beaten - just - to a Best Screenplay Oscar by Fargo. Sunshine State is his 13th as both scribe and helmer, and it's Lone Star with which it shares many clever parallels: Not just for its exceptional dialogue and outstanding performances, but its story and themes.

Just as Texas provided the title of the earlier one, Florida does for the latest. We also see a small town where the lives of disparate characters in a multi-racial colony interweave a la Altman. As we join them, the townsfolk's existence looks likely to be bulldozed by a large property development that threatens not only their lives, but the community's very roots.

There's skeletons that are pivotal to the story too. In Lone Star, the discovery of old bones set the narrative ball rolling, whereas here it stops it in its tracks.

Central to the stories are Edie Falco - exacting and believable - as Marly Temple, bored with running the Sea Vue Motel and desperately in need of an escape, but constrained by family ties.

Meanwhile, Desiree Perry (early Sayles regular Angela Bassett) is returning to a home town she ran away from as a pregnant teenager; she'd burned her bridges but now wants to patch things up with Mom.

As the director himself says: "One woman is realising she needs to leave, while the other is discovering that she may be able to return." Again, in Lone Star, it's all about how history is interpreted and how it comes back to haunt us; how the past is as important as the now.

Earlier, we hear Marly tell of her former role as a Weeki Wacki Mermaid at a local aqua theme park. Desiree, on the other hand, is a wannabe actress stuck in infomercials and TV adverts. Elsewhere, there's a multitude of "failed performers": Francine Pickney, inventing local legends of Piracy and hosting the annual Family Buccaneer Day; Flash Philips, the former football star, now selling used autos; Steve, Marly's ex, reduced to dressing up as a Civil War Yankee at a tourist attraction, are just some examples.

For these fantastic roles, Sayles gathers a terrific ensemble support cast (many of them recognisable from the director's prior projects): Mary Steenburgen as the aforementioned Buccaneer Day MC; Timothy Hutton (where'd HE go?), the charming architect of the proposed resort; and NYPD Blue pairing James McDaniel and Gordon Clapp, to name only a few.

Overall, Sunshine is measured - like most of Sayles' work - and fairly loose - unlike it. It's also a troubling-for-some 141 minutes in total.

But, by the end, it should have you scrambling to Amazon to snap up everything this God of Movies has ever slapped his name on.

RELATED STORIES: Click here to find out where the film featured in Simon Bell's Top 10 movies of 2002...