On limited release in theaters on Friday February 2nd before landing on Hulu February 9th, ‘Suncoast’ is the feature directorial debut of Laura Chinn, who has largely worked as an actor and writer/showrunner before.
Her film is partly based on a painful real-life experience, wherein her brother Max, was moved into the same hospice as controversial patient Terri Schiavo in 2005. Chinn uses the religious and ethical storm around Schiavo’s treatment, which forms one branch of the story here, though the focus is on the turbulent emotions of the main characters.
Does ‘Suncoast’ Shine?
Unfortunately, despite its deeply personal roots, ‘Suncoast’ somewhat has the feel of an after school special (or, at times, one of those “issues” plays put on by amateur troupes to teach kids about drugs or bullying).
Though the cast do what they can with the material (and at least one needs the full force of his charisma to power through an underwritten role) but the whole feels like a disappointment.
‘Suncoast’: Script and Direction
While Chinn is bringing obvious personal power to the screenplay, the result is somewhat less than the sum of its parts. Characters are largely pressured into easy archetypes, with main character Doris a fairly standard, sullen teen who longs to have a normal life. Though there is a rich seam of material to explore in her frustration at her mother’s negligence when it comes to anything but her comatose brother.
The character of her mother, meanwhile, is a bundle of raw nerves, grieving a loss that has yet to happen while firmly denying the concept and putting all of her energy into making her son’s last days as comfortable as possible. It’s a noble effort for sure, but it does make the character uncomfortably unsympathetic at times, in a way that the movie doesn’t always recover from.
Outside of the central pair, we have the character of Paul, one of the protestors at the hospice who is on a Christian pro-life crusade for the effectively braindead Terry Schiavo. On a purely script front, he’s less a person than a walking expression of believes and a debate point for the writer/director.
And then we have the teenage friends that the withdrawn Doris finally starts to make, but for all their basic realism, they could also come out of teen rebellion drama 101, a collection of lust/party obsessed kids who really only start hanging out with Doris when she offers the empty family home when her mother starts sleeping at the hospice.
Chinn as a director also keeps things fairly basic. It’s not surprising to learn that the movie premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, as this is the epitome of 1990s Sundance drama in its composition and straightforward shooting. Though eschewing flashy visuals works to keep the story at the forefront, it can truly come across as a parody of an indie movie.
With the script only doing so much work, it’s up to the cast to carry the load, and it is to Chinn’s advantage that she has cast some excellent performers who know how to handle this kind of story.
Laura Linney plays Christine, the mother of Doris and her ailing brother Max, and she brings the expected level of depth and anguish to the character of someone facing the death of one child while effectively treating the other as a nursing assistant more than a daughter. Linney makes Christine’s emotional trauma function, though even she can’t always get out of the narrative corners the script puts her in. At least until the usual emotional revelations arrive, which have less power because you see them coming for a while.
As Doris, her daughter, Nico Parker (who made her debut in Tim Burton’s live-action ‘Dumbo’ before appearing in ‘Reminiscence’ and TV’s ‘The Last of Us’) is also charged with wriggling her way out of the strictures of her character. She’s appropriately withdrawn, and never less than real (especially when seen beside the other teens in the movie) but the role sometimes defeats even her ability to carry it.
Woody Harrelson has a much smaller role as Paul, the protestor who strikes up a friendship with Doris. He’s burdened with a somewhat predictable grief backstory and despite his role effectively being a walking polemic at times, Harrelson does finds moments of charm, such as when he teaches Doris to drive (an ongoing subplot is Christine refusing to let the learner’s-permitted teen take the wheel, but we bet you can guess what forms part of the family rapprochement at the end.
Paul has little to do besides befriending Doris and occasionally being seen at the protest marches, and for all of his warmth in the part, it feels beneath Harrelson.
Finally, we have the likes of Daniella Taylor, Ella Anderson and Amarr as three of the school friends that Doris latches on to when they actually take notice of her. They do their best, but the trio is such a collection of cliches, they’re more likely to annoy than entertain.
‘Suncoast’: Final Thoughts
At one hour and 49 minutes, ‘Suncoast’ sometimes feels like a slog, and not just because of the heavy emotions that weigh it down. There are ways to carry such burdens, but the movie never quite figures out how to do it, despite a talented cast.
It’s a real shame since Chinn was clearly working from a heartfelt place. But as we’ve seen before, not every impactful life event can land successfully as a movie.
‘Suncoast’ receives 5 out of 10 stars.
What’s the story of ‘Suncoast’?
‘Suncoast’ is inspired by the semi-autobiographical story of a teenager named Doris (Nico Parker), who, while caring for her brother along with her audacious mother (Laura Linney), strikes up an unlikely friendship with an eccentric activist (Woody Harrelson) who is protesting one of the most landmark medical cases of all time.
Who else is in ‘Suncoast’?
The new drama’s cast also includes Ella Anderson, Daniella Taylor, Amarr and Ariel Martin.