Release Date: 02/09/24 [Hulu]
Studio: Searchlight Pictures.
"While caring for her brother along with her audacious mother , a teenager strikes up a friendship with an eccentric activist who is protesting one of the most landmark medical cases of all time."
OUR MOVIE REVIEW:
There's a iniquitousness with coming-of-age films; their universal appeal attracts audiences for two specific reasons. One reason is the reflection of many of our experiences growing up, and the other is the particular method of delivering that reflection. Suncoast, a new film from writer/director Laura Chinn, is a semi-autobiographical film set in Florida in the early-aughts during the height of the controversial Terry Schiavo case. Despite having the appropriate ingredients of a proper coming-of-age tale, Suncoast does not drill down enough on the introspection it craves to be sincerely moving.
The film tells the story of a young teen, Doris (Nico Parker), who wrestles with responsibility as she and her mother, Kristine (Laura Linney), care for Doris' brother Max (Cree Kawa), who is in hospice for brain cancer. Doris meets activist Paul (Woody Harrelson), a widower protesting the hospice clinic where Doris' brother is admitted due to the controversy surrounding Terry Schiavo, who is in the same clinic.
Doris' mother, Kristine, is incredibly over-the-top with her reactions to everything, from her truck's tailgate not staying closed to the cleanliness of the clinic. Kristine starts staying overnight at the clinic, leaving Doris home alone. Their tenuous relationship is established in the opening scene, and it never lets up until the end. Doris finds solace in the company of activist Paul, who smokes cigarettes and preaches to her about making peace with her brother's situation. She also capitalizes on her mother's absence from the house by inviting students from her school over for parties and sleepovers.
Doris is written to be a character unaware of her beauty or purpose; she is brilliant academically but quite behind in social graces. Her slow development is attributed to spending most of her childhood caring for her sick brother while her mother worked. So when the popular girls start coming over to her house, they introduce Doris to the usual staples of high school delinquent behavior – drinking, drugs, and truth or dare.
Most of the beats a coming-of-age film is expected to provide will crop up, which ties directly back to the first reason these types of films are made in the first place. The other reason is that the method in which Suncoast tells its story is a fusion of a real-world controversial medical story juxtaposed with the ethics that many teen dramas steer clear of. Sadly, Suncoast introduces a path of storytelling but doesn't land effectively.
For instance, the conceptualizing ethics both in the meta and the direct storylines are brought up but have no follow through. The addition of Harrelson's character, Paul, is interesting, but I wanted more from the growing relationship between him and Doris. Their shared scenes are the film's strongest parts, and there are too few of them. Harrelson floats in and out of the film, teasing what would have been a more interesting and heartfelt story. Kristine is a character who reacts to her understandably awful situation with dramatic outbursts that are reasonable initially but become insufferable quickly. She is not afforded grace to sit with her emotions, which makes her character one-note.
The shinier moments of Suncoast come from the unlikely friendship between Doris and Paul and the gradual growth of Doris coming out of her shell. Her eventual friends, who initially used her for the convenience of her empty home as the local hangout, become allies who project empathy and understanding, a refreshing take on snobby high school stereotypes. Doris works hard to accommodate her growing identity while juggling a stressed and burdened yet loving mother.
I suspect that between the many pivots Suncoast takes between Doris dealing with Max's hospice care, her mother, her friends, and her relationship with Paul, there is a more polished and captivating film here screaming to get out. The stitchwork of these particular threads is wound so tightly that the heart of this film labors to breathe. Suncoast hits all the beats and plays the right notes; it just doesn't quite play the music.