Every human life has a unique texture, shaped by that person’s experiences, personality and place in the world. Evoking “human life” is especially pertinent when talking about “Suncoast,” the semi-autobiographical dramedy from writer-director Laura Chinn. The movie is based on Chinn’s own adolescence — it’s dedicated to her brother Max, who died in 2005 while Chinn was still in high school. Premature death is widely understood to be a tragedy, but there’s a wrinkle to Chinn’s story that gives it a bizarre specificity: Shortly before his death, he was placed in the same hospice as Terri Schaivo.
For those who need a refresher (or weren’t old enough in 2005 to really be aware of the news), Terri Schaivo was the Florida woman at the center of a 15-year struggle between her husband — who said that Terri had asked him to let her die if she ever fell into a persistent vegetative state, which she did — and her parents, who fought to keep her alive although there was little chance that she would ever recover. The case became a cultural flashpoint after a judge ordered the removal of Schaivo’s feeding tube, making her a martyr for right-to-life advocates who protested daily outside of the Suncoast facility that gives this movie its name.
Those protesters’ chants and signs form the background of much of the action in “Suncoast,” but the Schaivo case doesn’t have much bearing on the story as a whole. Keeping Max (Cree Kawa) alive isn’t an option: It’s clear from the beginning of the movie that he’s going to die and there’s nothing his mother Kristine (Laura Linney) or sister Doris (Nico Parker) can do about it. The real drama is between mother and daughter, and within each of them as they try to come to terms with the reality of the situation.
Kristine expresses her grief about Max’s impending death by being hard on Doris, who feels neglected and angry about how her brother’s illness has taken over her life. For much of the film, Linney plays Kristine as a shaky, distraught mess, one who’s not very likable at times but whose actions are understandable given the circumstances. That being said, Doris has a more complex inner life — perhaps because she’s based on the writer of the film.
Parker, who made her screen debut in Tim Burton’s live-action “Dumbo” remake in 2019, brings subtle emotional shades to her character, whose desire to escape her morbid home life leads her to befriend a gang of popular girls by throwing druggy parties while Kristine is away sleeping on a cot in Max’s room. Over time Doris grows into a more confident, happier person under the influence of her new friends — not the direction one might expect from a storyline about a shy outcast who gets in with the cool kids. It’s a refreshing pivot, one that saves the film from becoming a one-note downer.
Shots of junky boardwalk gift shops and references to Anna Nicole Smith further locate “Suncoast” in a particular time and place. Chinn created a comedy series called “Florida Girls” for Pop TV in 2019 and the Florida of it all — think a guy called Sweet N’ Low who sells fake IDs to teenagers — also provides the film with some much-needed laughs. “Suncoast” is hardly riotous, however, and not just because it’s about death: There are a few moments of black comedy, but on the whole “Suncoast” is quite mild, a tone that matches the sunny cinematography and the quirky score from Este Haim and Christopher Stracey.
Where “Suncoast” stumbles is when it sacrifices specificity for generic sentiment, an issue that’s most noticeable in a subplot where Doris befriends a lonely widower named Paul (Woody Harrelson) who spends his days protesting outside Suncoast. Harrelson’s role in the movie is superfluous, except to facilitate one of those unlikely friendships that feel-good indie movies love so much.
The same is true for Pam Dougherty’s supporting role as a grief counselor, who we know will lead Kristine to some sort of emotional breakthrough from the moment she appears on-screen. Religious motifs also come and go, and Matt Walsh does the film’s most thankless work as a teacher at Doris’ high school whose job is to articulate the movie’s themes.
There are moments where “Suncoast” clicks: A shot of Doris sitting silently, lost in thought, as a pre-prom limo party rages around her. Parker’s tearjerker monologue in the climactic scene, which feels raw and vulnerable works exactly how it’s supposed to.
These come from a real place, and are sad and, yes, funny in a “laugh so you don’t cry” kind of way. But when the film gets too caught up in trying to be like its Sundance inspirations — think “Little Miss Sunshine” or “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” — it loses what makes this story worth telling in the first place.
“Suncoast” will arrive in theaters and on Hulu February 9.
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