Review: Semi-Autobiographical Suncoast Offers an Uneven if Well-Intentioned Coming-of-Age Story
In this strange, semi-autobiographical story from debut writer-director Laura Chinn, Suncoast tells the story of teenager Doris (Nico Parker), growing up in St. Petersburg, Florida, with her mother Kristine (Laura Linney) and a brother whose failing health has occupied the family’s time and resources for most of Doris’s life, making her feel like the forgotten child. The film is set in 2005 for a specific reason, because when her brother’s condition gets bad enough that he needs to be taken into a hospice facility, it happens to be at the exact same time one Terri Schiavo was at the same facility. For those who don’t know your right-to-die history, Schiavo’s illness and death were the focus of a major medical, legal, theological, ethical, political, and social controversy, which meant the Suncoast facility she was in was surrounded by protesters for days on end and threats against the staff and Shiavo’s husband were a regular occurrence. But it also makes Doris and Kristine’s visits to Suncoast all the more difficult as well.
During this period, Doris befriends one of the protesters, an older activist named Paul (Woody Harrelson), who wants to keep Terri alive, despite her explicit wishes to the contrary. Their friendship isn’t really about the landmark medical case, but in getting to know each other, Doris begins to understand her new friend and what makes him feel so strongly about the subject. But she’s more concerned with her mother’s seemingly extreme, often angry behavior about all things related to her behavior and her brother’s final days. Doris wants to be a normal teenager and not just known as the sister of the dying guy, so she makes bad decisions with regards to making friends with the girls at her school by letting them party at her house while her mom is spending nights at Suncoast. Parker captures this awkward girl quite convincingly, the product of moving from place to place too often and never really having the time to make friends.
The really beautiful score from Haim band member Este Haim and Christopher Stracey brings to the forefront some of the tumultuous emotions flying around this uneven but still impactful work. I’m still a bit confused why the Paul character is a part of this story at all, other than to give Doris a sounding board so the audience can make sense of her tangled thoughts, but there were probably less obvious ways to make that happen without introducing the vaguely uncomfortable relationship between a teen girl and a middle-aged man who seems a little too eager to befriend her.
In addition, the family story isn’t enhanced in any way by connecting it to the Schiavo case, although it does provide a unique context for her brother’s story. It doesn’t help that Kristine absolutely refuses to acknowledge that she has placed her daughter in the caregiver role at too young an age, in the process losing a lot of motherly attention because her brother’s condition doesn’t make her the most empathetic character. Suncoast is a mixed bag of good intentions and ill-conceived execution, but the acting is solid and director Chinn does as admirable job in balancing the family drama and the coming-of-age material.
The film is now streaming on Hulu.
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Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.