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‘Suncoast’ shines a sensitive light on Laura Chinn’s personal coming-of-age story

Eric Zachanowich/Searchlight Pictures

A little movie with a dour theme, “Suncoast” had no chance of basking in the theatrical sunshine, but deserves to be seen on Hulu. Writer-director Laura Chinn tells the semi-autobiographical story about her dying brother and understandably crazed mother, with no-dry-eyes left performances by Nico Parker and Laura Linney, plus an assist from Woody Harrelson for good measure.

Although Chinn (an actor who previously created the cable series “Florida Girls”) has fictionalized the details, the underpinnings of the story come from her life: a brother relegated to hospice care due to the effects of brain cancer, and the challenge of trying to lead some semblance of a normal high-school existence while her mom is sleeping on the floor at the facility, where Terri Schiavo – whose right-to-death case became a national story – was also being housed.

Living in Clearwater, Florida in 2005, Doris (Parker, seen in “The Last of Us” and Tim Burton’s “Dumbo”) thus must navigate protesters when she goes to visit him, which is how she meets Paul (Harrelson), a grieving widow who has taken an interest in the Schiavo case, but recognizes the girl as someone who needs a friend.

Despite being shy, Doris also makes some new friends at school, mostly because mom’s extended absences – when she isn’t berating the girl for not being attentive enough to her brother’s condition – leave her with an empty house where the teens can get together and party without parental intrusions.

As familiar as the coming-of-age template feels, Doris’ plight and Linney’s live-wire performance as a mom constantly ready to vent her anger at the world toward Doris, or anybody else, give “Suncoast” (the name of the facility) a powerful emotional pull. The story also deals not only with the ethics of letting people die with dignity but the process of grieving, and when and how we allow ourselves to do so.

“I’ll learn how to be fun again,” the mom tells the daughter in a rare moment of sobriety, acknowledging just how un-fun life has become for both.

While the focus remains mostly on the central cast, Chinn also allows some nice moments for peripheral characters, including a nurse (“Curb Your Enthusiasm’s” Keyla Monterroso Mejia) who the mom at first dismisses as too young and cheerful to be of any use.

Although streaming has helped blow up the traditional moviegoing model, the benefits of the medium can be found in potentially exposing smaller films like this one to people who might never have found it otherwise.

In her director’s note, Chinn explains that while considerable liberties were taken with the details of her experience, “The emotions are real.” However dark the premise might be, that part of “Suncoast” shines through as bright as day.

“Suncoast” premieres February 9 on Hulu. It’s rated R for teen drug and alcohol use.

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