Floridian residents of a certain age viscerally remember the name Terri Schiavo. She was a woman in a vegetative state who became the center of a national right-to-die debate when her husband petitioned against her parents to remove her feeding tube. Filmmaker Laura Chinn had a unique experience of the case, which took place in her hometown of Clearwater: her brother shared a hospice center with Schiavo in the mid-aughts as the case reached its divisive climax.

That’s the inspiration for her debut feature Suncoast, which she wrote and directed. Set at the same time and place, the film is a dramedy that wears its messy little heart on its sleeve. Beautifully shot and acted, it refuses to take sides in one of the most controversial modern debates, and is all the better for it.

Doris (Nico Parker) and her mother Kristine (Laura Linney) are struggling to get by in a dumpy part of Clearwater. Under relentlessly sunny skies and beside the sparkling Gulf of Mexico, Kristine works a lousy waitress job to pay rent while Doris whiles away her teenage years caring for her older brother Max (Cree Kawa). Max has brain cancer, and he can no longer move on his own or see, so Kristine moves him into a hospice center––the same one housing Terri Schiavo and flanked by crowds of pro-life protesters. As Doris revels in her newfound freedom, making friends at school and forming an unlikely bond with a protester named Paul (Woody Harrelson), Kristine avoids the center’s grief counselor (Pam Dougherty) and struggles to cope.

There’s a lot going on here, surely––Chinn could’ve killed a few darlings. Doris losing her role as brother’s keeper and immediately attracting popular friends and the attention of the cute guy in class is about as believable as the kids from her small private school, who sit next to her in class every day, not knowing her name. Ditto one of said friends (a rich teenage girl) casually calling herself a feminist. In a Christian Florida private school? In 2005?!

Doris’ peers add some fun flavor to the movie––blonde party girl Brittany (Henry Danger‘s Ella Anderson) is especially fantastic––but it’s odd that she couldn’t just have preexisting friends. Her relationship with Paul the protester is inherently complex, as Doris tries shrugging off Max’s plight as Paul, a Christian widower, encourages her to appreciate her brother while she still can. Suncoast would hit harder if it cut down on its high school plot and further developed this challenging friendship.

It’s wonderful that the film never chooses a side in the Schiavo case; to do so would be a distraction from its subjective, human storytelling. It’s indeed distracting to show a glimpse of Schiavo, as played by an actor, but at least Chinn opts for refreshing nuance in all of Suncoast’s conflicts. Paul’s not a bad guy because he has conservative beliefs, just as Doris’ friends aren’t bad people because they can’t relate to her. Kristine puts Doris through hell, but she’s still a sympathetic character, even if her pain comes out in maudlin monologues that only Laura Linney could sell.

Suncoast is a feast for the eyes (and tear ducts). Parker nimbly spars with Linney and Harrison, and cinematographer Bruce Francis Cole (Farewell Amor) makes everything look great. The Florida setting heightens dramatic and tonal tension as Max languishes in a room with walls the same delicate, confrontational pink as the inside of a conch shell and Doris and Paul talk death at a dockside restaurant. It’s weird to be sad in a place so vibrant, a feeling Chinn and her team capture aptly. It’s also strange to go through such heavy things as a teenager, which Chinn highlights with comedic aplomb, aided by the Pussycat Dolls’ bawdy hit “Don’t Cha.”

Although the script could certainly use pruning, Suncoast balances intellect and emotion to deliver clever, memorable lines and a climax that will leave you weeping. If you’re a native of the state that everyone loves to hate, this is one you really can’t miss.

Suncoast premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival and will be released on Hulu on February 9.

Grade: B

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