THE STORY – A teen living with her strong-willed mother must take her brother to a specialized facility. She strikes up an unlikely friendship with an eccentric activist at protests surrounding a landmark medical case.
THE CAST – Nico Parker, Laura Linney & Woody Harrelson
THE TEAM – Laura Chinn (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 109 Minutes
It’s hard to be a teenager, no matter who you are, but it’s even more complicated when circumstances beyond your control stop you from being the person you want to be or doing what you desire. That struggle makes up much of Laura Chinn’s semi-autobiographical debut “Suncoast,” which draws on her personal experience of discovering “normal” teenage adolescence amid family tragedy.
Plenty of coming-of-age films have come and gone over the years, but Chinn’s stands out. Of course, there are typical teenage moments throughout, as Doris (an incredible performance from Nico Parker) experiences the good, bad, and ugly parts of being a young woman. But what makes “Suncoast” unique is its raw and moving portrait of a mother and daughter preparing, and more so, struggling to prepare for a significant loss. While Chinn’s script holds back in some ways regarding characters’ inner struggles related to this impending death, she still gives us heartbreaking moments guaranteed to get tears flowing.
It’s 2005 in Clearwater, Florida, a time when you could always find “The Anna Nicole Show” on television and couldn’t get away from magazine headlines about Brad and Jen’s breakup. High schooler Doris wishes she could kick her feet up and channel surf like the rest of her peers, but she’s been busy taking care of her brother Max (Cree Kawa) the last few years following his brain cancer diagnosis. Her mother, Kristine (Laura Linney), constantly reminds her how selfish she’s being the second she wants to do something for herself. It’s gotten to the point where Doris doesn’t have any friends, and she can’t even take the bus to school without her mother embarrassing her as they load her brother into the truck to take him to hospice care. The disappointment, exasperation, and longing that Parker can convey in her eyes is magnificent and relatable.
At Suncoast Hospice, the family stumbles upon a media frenzy as the Terri Schiavo case rages on, which revolves around Schiavo’s husband wanting to honor her wishes by taking her off life support, a decision her parents oppose. Kristine is dissatisfied with the treatment her son has been receiving, so she decides to sleep at Suncoast, leaving Doris as a complete afterthought and home alone all the time. But this gives the yearning teenager an opportunity to rebel and experience all the fun she’s been missing out on, which starts with inviting classmates Laci (Daniella Taylor), Brittany (Ella Anderson), Megan (Ariel Martin), and Nate (Amarr) over for parties, and later escalating to skipping school to get fake IDs and getting into clubs.
It’s a treat to see Doris find her freedom, even when she makes questionable decisions that warrant the scolding she receives from her mother. Parker beautifully navigates Doris’ joys of new friendship and a romance that blossoms with Nate, all while she simultaneously has to stifle her desires whenever her mother thinks she’s turning her back on her brother.
While Kristine is entirely ignoring her daughter – she even mistakenly answers “no” when asked if she has any other children other than her son – Doris strikes up a friendship with Paul (Woody Harrelson), a Christian widower who is part of the Schiavo picket outside the hospice facility. He shares his experience of losing his wife to help Doris prepare for the impending loss of her brother and shows her a bit of attention that she’s lacking at home, like teaching her how to drive and just simply talking with her. Kristine is more interested in speaking with her unresponsive son and making him comfortable than checking in with her daughter, whose problems Kristine constantly brushes off. Linney plays this demanding mother with conviction. She never wavers from Kristine’s rough-around-the-edges persona, even though she entirely denies the situation at hand. She has to balance a delicate role, and she does it with such ease. In contrast, Harrelson doesn’t do much with Paul, playing a version of himself we’ve seen time and time again.
One area where Chinn’s script is too timid is in showing how both Doris and Kristine are facing inner turmoil over Max’s impending death. Doris, understandably, spends most of her time in the film embracing teenagehood, but she has a beautiful scene where she’s looking through an old family album and watching home videos. Emotion overcomes her instantly, but she quickly suppresses it and moves on to the next teenage adventure. It does make us wish there were more of those introspective moments, not just the big one toward the film’s end, which leads to an absolute tear-jerker scene. With Kristine, we can sense the denial she’s going through more easily. She refuses to face what life is going to look like once Max is gone, and she puts up walls whenever grief counselor Sue (Pam Dougherty) tries to engage on the subject. But again, Chinn waits until the end to give us that sweet and vulnerable moment we need and want from Kristine.
Regardless of some flaws, Chinn has delivered a soulful look at teenage youth, family, and loss with her debut “Suncoast.” Tears will certainly be shed due to Parker and Linney’s wonderful performances, and Chinn has shown that she’s an up-and-coming director to watch in the future.