Movies: Fresh Squeezed

In "Sunshine State," John Sayles--one of the rare homegrown filmmakers concerned with the connection between the personal and the political--attempts to do for Florida what "City of Hope" did for New Jersey and "Lone Star" for Texas. His ambitious, densely populated saga is set on the fictional Plantation Island, a beachfront community ripe for development by entrepreneurs who want to convert its faded charm into upscale vacation properties for wealthy Northerners. Sayles has a stubborn faith in his audience's grown-up attention span.

There are at least a dozen major characters in "Sunshine State," but it pivots around two women. Hard-drinking divorcee Marly (Edie Falco) is stuck running her father's motel. She's a custodian of her dad's dreams, but she's misplaced her own along the way. She drifts into an affair with an outsider: the landscape architect (Timothy Hutton) working for the guys who want her to sell the family business. Desiree (Angela Bassett) fled the black enclave of Lincoln Beach under a cloud when she was a teenager. Now, 25 years later, she returns to the island with her doctor husband (James McDaniel). But she finds she's no more free of the past than Marly. Everything in "Sunshine State" is subject to negotiation--from real estate to family relations--and anything can be turned into a commodity, including history. Capitalism, Sayles implies, may have no respect for the past, but it ignores it at its peril: skeletons have a way of popping up in surprising places.

There are moments when Sayles's movie feels as much a diagram as a drama. It raises more issues than it can comfortably digest (a Greek chorus of aging golfers led by Alan King is frosting this layer cake doesn't need). But who wants to complain abut an American movie that has too much on its mind? The fine cast includes Mary Steenburgen as a civic booster, Mary Alice as Desiree's hurt mother, Jane Alexander as Mandy's acting-teacher mom and Tom Wright as a faded college-football hero. Best of all is Falco, whose bruised, brusque, soulful Southern girl banishes all traces of Carmela Soprano.