“You want to be a normal teenager. I’ve got news for you, you’re not normal, Doris.”
It’s difficult to recall when Sundance went from one of the most influential film festivals in the industry to an adjective. At some point, however, it did. It’s now the norm for many character-driven titles who try to stretch their moviemaking dollars as far as they can to be labeled as “Sundance-y,” a collection of films that embrace their low budgets, limited sets, and for one reason or another, scream “film festival.” It’s up in the air as to whether the films branded with this moniker can have a life on their own, away from such a somewhat presumptuous label. One that certainly deserves to is Suncoast, a new mother/daughter drama fresh from this year’s festival soon to debut on Hulu. The film is not the kind of audience-pleaser some would hope, but its rewards are undeniable and the experience is a cathartic one where two forgotten souls find themselves again in that “Sundance-y” way.
Set in the heart of Clearwater, Florida, writer/director Laura Chinn’s debut tells the story of a teenage girl named Doris (Nico Parker) who lives with her single mother Kristine (Laura Linney), and brother Max (Cree Kawa). Ever since Max was struck with the brain cancer that’s left him paralyzed and blind, Kristine has spent every free moment caring for him, leaving Doris to feel neglected. When the time has come to move her brother into a hospice facility named Suncoast, Doris finds herself coping by joining the popular clique at school and developing a friendship with an activist named Paul (Woody Harrelson).
Even though Suncoast is told primarily from Doris’ perspective, it’s just as much Kristine’s story as it is hers. The character suffers slightly from being just a tad overwritten but is easily the film’s most powerful force. A single mother with a dead-end job and a son with an incurable illness, Kristine is immediately painted as a woman who hasn’t enjoyed a moment of peace or bliss in years. The widow has a type-A personality that’s only exacerbated by Max’s condition, which dominates her every move. Kristine’s only way of dealing with her son’s upcoming death is by obsessing over every detail she can control (such as the noise coming from the vent in his room) since she can’t control when he will leave her for good. There’s both a fierceness and a great amount of pain in watching Kristine trying to protect her child as much as she can now, with the realization that he will stay a little boy for the rest of his life continuously hitting her. Her grief and the way Max’s condition has consumed every waking moment has severely compromised Kristine’s relationship with Doris, more than she realizes. A moment between her and a grief counselor sees her failing to remember that she has another child. It’s a sobering moment that shakes Kristine up, causing her to see herself in a different light and feel heartache as the kind of parent she’s unknowingly and unwillingly become.
On the surface, Doris’ attitude towards her brother at the last stage of his life can be seen as callous. There’s a great deal of anger and resentment on Doris’ part about the cards her family was dealt. After spending years living her life for her brother, her desire and struggle to maintain as conventional an existence as possible, however small, becomes her main focus. Doris feels it is her right, and she’s upset that she can’t have it. It’s hard not to empathize with Doris’ needs and wants since they are merely what every child should have the right to. An acceptance into a circle of popular high school girls in Doris’ class starts as a bad idea but eventually gives her a glimpse into the kind of normalcy she never thought she would be able to participate in. For Doris, who has felt alone for so long, the group provides not just escape, but a much-needed form of healing after years spent asking herself: “Why me? Why my family?”. When she’s forced to deal with her family, the results are not perfect. Kristine’s attempt to connect with Doris is thwarted by the gap that’s existed between them for so long, and her dealing with her brother’s impending death by not dealing with it at all speaks to the kind of fear that can’t help but take hold over such a young girl.
The film belongs to Linney and Parker, two very different actresses who approach Suncoast with two very different styles. The former turns in another well-crafted characterization, giving Kristine empathy while presenting her flaws without judgment. Parker, on the other hand, plays Doris with the curiosity and wonder of a heroine in a fairy tale, giving her room to explore and embrace the mistakes her character makes. Both actresses may be in their own films (much like the characters are in their own worlds), but they connect by the film’s end for one of the most superb moments of grief to exist on film between parent and child.
Suncoast is worthy of attention and praise for all it manages to accomplish. But a film that attempts such a sensitive subject can’t help but suffer a handful of missteps along the way. The movie’s various bits of humor happen organically but rarely prove useful or necessary. Meanwhile, Suncoast‘s period piece setting (the film takes place in the early 00s) is felt but ultimately adds nothing to the proceedings while a medical case in the same building housing Max has attracted nationwide attention, including protests. This provides some occasional background tension, but little else. Worst of all, however, is Harrelson’s character, whose connection with Doris feels more paint-by-numbers than genuine. But Suncoast exists best as a reminder that we don’t do grief well in this country, a fact this movie knows and is ultimately the reason the film succeeds as a well-made illustration of loss from the perspective of someone experiencing it far too soon.