Splendidly acted and authentic drama on Hulu about a teen struggling with life-and-death issues, a new school and a mother who regards her as part of the help.
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“Suncoast” is an incredibly tender and authentic film — the kind of movie that makes you fall in love with movies all over again.
It’s written and directed by Laura Chinn, her first stint in the big chair after a successful run as a writer/producer of mostly televised fare, and set in her own hometown of Clearwater, Fla. As a fellow Florida native, I instantly communed with its depiction of low-slung, terracotta-tiled houses, oppressive glare and slightly feral denizens.
(The movie stays away from Clearwater’s white-sand beaches, some of the best in the state, since it was actually shot in Charleston.)
It’s about a 17-year-old girl, Doris, who is facing a triumvirate of challenges. Set in the year 2005, she is about to start at a new school, Clearwater Christian High. Her mother is almost a caricature of an overbearing matriarch, seeming not to regard her as a daughter but more like part of the help.
Thirdly, her mom is like this due in no small part to the fact her older brother, Max (Cree Kawa), is in the end stages of brain cancer. He has been completely incapable of speaking or feeding himself for some years, and seems unaware of his surroundings. Doris has been her brother’s main caregiver while her mom worked at local tourist traps to pay the family medical bills and save enough for her to go to private school.
Played winsomely by Nico Parker (“The Last of Us”), Doris is both a very typical and very weird kid. Their family is not religious — parents tend to take a dim view of God’s will when it aims death at their children — but Doris is smart and unfailingly polite. She’s downright naive, truth be told, and is excited about the prospect of making new friends, meeting dateable boys and otherwise sliding into something like a normal teenage existence.
As the story opens, Max is being moved from their dumpy rental house with its removable ramp to a hospice center to live out his last few weeks of life. As it turns out, it is at Suncoast, the same facility where Terri Schiavo is similarly situated.
If you’re not familiar with that real-life case, it was a huge controversy in Florida that eventually became a national story, about a brain-dead woman at the center of a court battle between her husband and parents about whether she should continue to be kept on life support.
Back then I was a newspaper journalist in Ocala, not terribly far from Clearwater, and carefully kept my non-movie-related opinions to myself. But I remember being terribly angry about the Schiavo case at the time. It was the sort of thing where it was very hard not to take a side.
(Oddly, the soberest take on the whole thing came from a “South Park” episode that aired mere hours before her death.)
Doris and her mom, Kristine (Laura Linney), arrive at Suncoast while it is being camped out daily by protesters, mostly on the religious side advocating for keeping Schiavo alive. One of them is Paul (Woody Harrelson), a scruffy older man wearing the standard Florida uniform of T-shirt, ratty shorts and sandals. He befriends Doris, tells her about how much he misses his late wife, and why it’s important for him to be there and make his voice heard.
They argue, gently, about whether it is right for people like Max and Terri to be kept clinging to life.
Chinn and her cast take great pains not to make snap judgements about these characters — Paul’s deeply held religious beliefs, Kristine’s justifiable rage or Doris’ confused attempt to navigate life-and-death decisions that reside way above her pay grade. The film treats them as people with very human motivations and failings, not caricatures.
Even the poor cop who has to scope out visitors to the hospice and deal with the protesters seems very eye-level and relatable.
The first portion of the movie centers mostly on Doris’ hardened relationship with her mother. They talk not very much and communicate even less. Any time Doris makes the slightest protest of wanting a little time and space for herself, she’s accused of being selfish.
Kristine is not a bad sort but has been dealt a bad hand and struggles to stay emotionally afloat. Resentment has become her default setting. When a grief counselor at the hospice (Pam Dougherty) inquires if she has any other children besides Max, Kristine instinctively responds “no” — and then catches herself, and suddenly understands how Doris feels.
Doris meets Paul, and their continual, sporadic conversations remind her that her days of adults treating her as a child are coming to an end. He lets her complain about her mother and gives her the driving lessons Kristine will not.
Toward the latter half of the movie Doris’ relationships at school rise to the fore. She runs into the local set of popular rich kids, who at first treat her as inconsequential, but then as a curiosity when they see how they can use Doris and her empty house, since her mom sleeps nights at the hospice.
We think it’s going to turn into the stereotypical scenario, a la “Mean Girls” and “Heathers,” where Doris joins the in crowd and becomes corrupted, but eventually realizes her supposed friends are shallow jerkwads.
But then the movie surprises us once again, and the party teens turn out to be just as vulnerable, self-aware and screwed-up as Doris — albeit living in posher zip codes. (Ella Anderson, Daniella Taylor, Amarr and Ariel Martin play the key friends.) Doris finds a genuine support system, grows stronger and more prepared to push back against her mother’s harshness.
“When this is all over, I’ll learn how to be fun again,” Kristine promises Doris during one of their rare moments of calm.
“Suncoast” is a story steeped in authenticity — for coastal Florida, for a time and place of great strife, and especially for what it’s like to be a teenager butting heads with a single mother in circumstances beyond most of our comprehension. It’s splendidly acted and heartfelt, a song of sadness but also great joy that never rings a false note.