The year was 2005, and if it wasn’t a simpler time, the ways in which it was inane only felt obvious in hindsight. A majority of Americans voted to give George W. Bush a second term in office, the airwaves were dominated by the likes of Paris Hilton, Nicole Richie, and Anna Nicole Smith, and the eyes of the nation turned to Clearwater, Florida, where a woman in a persistent vegetative state named Terry Schiavo was at the center of the culture war. For those too young to remember, Schiavo was the subject of a years-long legal battle waged by her parents to keep their adult daughter (who suffered extreme brain damage decades earlier) alive via a feeding tube, counter to the wishes of her husband, Michael, who argued that she would have wished to die with dignity. It’s a reference that’s not invoked lightly or without purpose as it relates to Suncoast, only a couple weeks removed from its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. Not only is the film set against the backdrop of the daily protests outside the western Florida hospice facility where Schiavo eventually expired, but in a too cute though perhaps unavoidable bit of thematic twinning, the film focuses on the plight of another family going through the wrenching process of saying goodbye to a catatonic loved one just a few doors down the hall. Yet despite pulling from real-life events (and in more ways than one), the film itself feels both generic and toothless; an off-the-shelf bit of tragi-comic festival bait that, for all the lived experiences that supposedly undergirds it, feels nonspecific and entirely disposable.
Latchkey teenager Doris (Nico Parker, a dead ringer for her mother Thandiwe Newton) spends the hours after school each day caring for her bed-bound older brother Max (Cree Kawa), who, following years of fighting terminal brain cancer, is now blind, non-verbal/unresponsive, immobile, and requires near constant supervision simply to survive. Their Type-A mother Kristine (Laura Linney, pounding the same agitated note at feature-length) slaves away at a job she hates in order to pay for Max’s treatments and Doris’ private Catholic school — considering all the talk of euthanasia, one would expect faith and God’s will to play a greater role in the film — and takes her frustrations out on her daughter, who she views as a constant source of disappointment. With Max being relocated to a hospice center for palliative care, Kristine can’t stand the idea of her eldest being left alone at night and volunteers to sleep on a cot at the hospital, leaving the already desperate-for-attention Doris feeling all the more abandoned. But a 17-year-old with a house all to themselves will never be lonely for long, particularly once word gets out amongst the cool kids at school that Doris has the perfect place to throw parties without adult supervision. Happy to capitalize on the situation and appreciative of her newfound social status and new wealthier friends, Doris only further disengages from her brother and mother; viewing both of them as an emotional drag, pulling her away from underage drinking, clubbing, and boys. But with Max’s days on Earth numbered, will Doris learn to appreciate the fragility of life and learn “what really matters” before her brother’s gone?
If that framing sounds facile, it is, but then so is everything else about the film. Written and directed by first-time filmmaker Laura Chinn, Suncoast renders a fairly sobering scenario with a glib, easy-to-digest patness. Chinn favors pratfalls, uncomplicated emotional catharsis, and predictable payoffs to broadly conceived setups that betray her sitcom roots (Chinn cut her teeth writing for half-hour comedies like The Mick and Grandfathered). The film gives Doris a mismatched confidant in Woody Harrelson’s Paul, a kindly 60-something pro-life protester who buys her lunch, gives her driving lessons — much frantic screaming of “go straight!” and careening into trash cans ensues — and, most importantly, reminds her that all life is sacred and that it’s the little unspoken things she’ll miss the most when her brother’s gone. The film steers clear of expressing an actual opinion about the Schiavo quagmire, aside from a few brief mentions of increased security at the hospice as a result of bomb threats — one of which forces Kristine to return home early and catch her daughter in a state of semi-undress while playing truth or dare with her high school crush; isn’t that always the way? — painting Paul as a near saintly figure who just happens to be camped out in front of a hospital with hundreds of his deranged friends for weeks on end because he vehemently disagrees with what would otherwise be a private family matter. There’s no sight gag too obvious or joke too hackneyed to be pitched at the cheap seats, whether it be Kristine crawling into an air vent to root out the source of an electric hum in Max’s hospital room or the film featuring two separate instances of Doris rushing back to the hospital in setting-inappropriate evening wear — knee high boots and cleavage? While your brother is dying? But that’s the film’s M.O.: trotting out comedic beats so moldy they could be used to make penicillin (e.g. from her seat in the back of a small high school classroom, Doris volunteers her house as a venue for an impromptu party which is warmly received by the kids sitting around her, only for someone to ask, after an interminable pause, “Wait, who are you?”)
That a festival like Sundance would embrace the sort of film that feels like the result of one of those online courses that pledges to help aspiring writers catch the eye of an agent’s script reader isn’t terribly surprising, but that this sort of undistinguished, homogenized pap came from Chinn kind of is. Not that the filmmaker’s body of work augured something greater than this, but, by all accounts, Chinn drew heavily from her own life for Suncoast, including being biracial but passing for white (not even acknowledged by the film), having a brother who died of brain cancer, and spending considerable time on the frontlines of the Suncoast hospice at the same time as Schiavo. But what’s missing here is any sort of unique insight or actual messiness; some moment that feels like it’s drawing from the lived experience of having gone through all of this at an impressionable age. The film, without exception, treats Max like a prop, Doris’ emotional crisis and belated epiphany that she belongs with her family naturally coincides with her social apex while attending prom — never mind that Schiavo died in March of 2005 and prom season typically runs anywhere from April to June — and almost no effort is made to present Kristine charitably, with Linney far too content to lean on exasperated haranguing (the one moment of the film that feels genuine is Kristine’s knee-jerk response that Max is her only child, only to register mortification and clumsy stabs at contrition over forgetting about Doris). Curiously, the film bestows grace on its supporting players more than its leads, such as a perpetually cheerful nurse (Keyla Monterroso Mejia) who sniffs back tears while expressing the tragedy of a teenaged hospice patient, or a disabled grief counselor (Pam Dougherty) who regularly endures Kristine’s passive aggression and standoffishness in the hopes she’ll accept the inevitability of Max’s death. And then there’s the most intriguing, if underexplored, idea here: that Doris and Kristine are serving as proxies for Schiavo’s husband and parents, with the former having long made her peace over her loved one being dead already and desperate to move on while the latter clings to a single-minded notion of life which is all but untenable for everyone involved — although the extent to which the film intended this interpretation is anyone’s guess. Which is to say, Suncoast is precisely the sort of film that when viewers actually stumble onto something that doesn’t feel cookie-cutter, they’re inclined to view its inclusion as pure accident as much as anything else.
DIRECTOR: Laura Chinn; CAST: Laura Linney, Nico Parker, Woody Harrelson; DISTRIBUTOR: Searchlight Pictures; IN THEATERS: February 2; STREAMING: February 9; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 49 min.