Inspired by Florida's position as the epicenter of so much recent drama and general weirdness, a recent New York Times Magazine cover story asked the question, "What is it about Florida, anyway?" Sunshine State, the latest film from writer-director John Sayles, seems like an inadvertent answer to that question. In a small western-Florida island community, Sayles finds one of the little Americas he previously explored in multi-character community dramas like City Of Hope and Lone Star. The film's action revolves around the interlocked, if superficially unrelated, stories of two women, one a virtual lifetime resident of the area, the other a recent returnee. Edie Falco, whose dreams of escaping only got her as far as a featured role in the venerable nearby Weeki Wachee mermaid show, oversees the now-outmoded motor lodge and restaurant her father built. Generally ignored, it becomes the object of attention when a group of developers decides that the island is an overlooked treasure. Where Falco finds her life defined by her inability to leave the island, the opposite is true for Angela Bassett. Sent away during a teenage pregnancy, Bassett returns to visit her mother just as the forces of progress begin to put the squeeze on the residents of another part of the island, a shabby Jim Crow-era haven for black vacationers. A dozen-plus characters weave through Bassett and Falco's lives over the course of a pirate-themed weekend celebration, but unlike in similar past efforts, Sayles never finds a way to bring it all together. Individual moments of considerable impact alternate with stretches that go nowhere, including sequences that are never resolved. Just as distressing, Sayles' tendency to indulge in spell-it-out dialogue—particularly when focusing on a Greek chorus of golfers led by Alan King—has never been more pronounced. Most of the time, though, the performances save the film. Bassett and Falco set a high standard matched by the rest of the cast, and by Sayles' commendable exploration of his film's thorny issues. This time out, however, the thorns slow him down.
More from The A.V. Club