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A Florida of Colliding Cultures


John Sayles has always been interested in the world, and the world has been pleased to return the compliment, supplying the writer-director with meaty situations that make for meaningful cinema.

During the past several years, Sayles' films have evolved into a crash course on the cultures that make up the American scene. With films like "Matewan" (West Virginia), "Passion Fish" (Louisiana), "Lone Star" (Texas) and "Limbo" (Alaska), he's gone where his interest and the issues have taken him, providing a series of provocative slices of contemporary life.

In "Sunshine State," his latest film, Sayles, working with longtime producer Maggie Renzi, looks at a moment in time in today's Florida, where the inexorable drive to develop is taking on all comers. With a wide range of people displayed on a broad canvas, Sayles' films are always of interest, and even though the partly cloudy "Sunshine State" is not the writer-director at his best, even his letdowns often have more to offer than other people's successes.

"Sunshine State" is set on a mythical Florida island inspired by the real-life Amelia Island, where filming took place. Three separate cultures uneasily coexist here, fighting for turf as well as for survival. The most recent arrivals are the golfers, whose bastion is the wealthy enclave of Plantation Island, a manicured community described by member Murray Silver (Alan King), a typical refugee from the North, as "nature on a leash." Silver and company have contempt for the area's original white settlers (he calls them "white people who ate catfish"), locals who live in Delrona Beach, a nondescript town that's being eagerly eyed by several sets of developers.

The third group is the island's African American community, whose Lincoln Beach area is considered by its residents, led by the charismatic Dr. Lloyd (Bill Cobbs), to be of great historical interest because it was for decades the only beachfront in this part of the state where blacks were welcome. This certainly is a setup with considerable potential, perhaps too much.

"Sunshine State" has a tendency to be too didactic at times, to be of more pressing sociological than dramatic interest, as some characters get lost or feel underdeveloped in the welter of intriguing factual information the film wants us to know. That said, "Sunshine State," has several potent performances in it, starting with Edie Falco as Marly Temple, a sixth-generation Floridian who unhappily runs the local motel, the Sea-Vue, for her feuding parents, Furman (Ralph Waite) and Delia (Jane Alexander). Falco, best known as Carmela Soprano, gives the performance of the film as the brusque, forceful, nervy Marly, who takes an interest in tony landscape architect Jack Meadows (an excellent Timothy Hutton) though she knows she probably shouldn't.

If Marly has spent her whole life in town trying to get out, Desiree Perry (Angela Bassett) has been gone since she was 15 and is coming back with her anesthesiologist husband (James McDaniel) to attempt a semblance of peace with an aging mother who has just taken troubled teenage arsonist Terrell (Alex Lewis) under her wing.

Bassett, as always hard to take your eyes off of, is well-matched by the quietly powerful Mary Alice as her elegant, needling mother, Eunice Stokes, who's never forgiven Desiree her youthful indiscretions. Then there's the fact that Desiree's seemingly promising acting career (Marly's mother, Delia, was her teacher) now consists largely of infomercials.

Not all of the key characters, though, are given as much to do as the aforementioned. Mary Steenburgen as Delrona Beach's biggest Chamber of Commerce booster and Gordon Clapp as her banker husband appear so infrequently you forget they're part of the film. Tom Wright as former football star Flash Phillips arrives too late in an already long film to make the impression he's intended to.

Yet if "Sunshine State" doesn't always live up to the standards the writer-director himself has set, this is still a John Sayles project and that counts for a lot. Even if it pushes its agenda too forcefully, this remains a film about something, one that attempts and often achieves a level of connection and concern. That's too uncommon a scenario to be dismissed.

MPAA rating: PG-13, for brief strong language, a sexual reference and thematic elements. Times guidelines: adult subject matter.

"Sunshine State"

Edie Falco...Marly Temple

Jane Alexander...Delia Temple

Ralph Waite...Furman Temple

Angela Bassett...Desiree Perry

James McDaniel...Reggie Perry

Mary Alice...Eunice Stokes

Bill Cobbs...Dr. Lloyd

Released by Sony Pictures Classics. Director John Sayles. Producer Maggie Renzi. Screenplay John Sayles. Cinematographer Patrick Cady. Editor John Sayles. Costumes Mayes Rubeo. Music Mason Darling. Production design Mark Ricker. Running time: 2 hours, 21 minutes.

In limited release.

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