It’s not a stretch to imagine John Sayles crisscrossing the country in a VW Microbus — ideally an old heap from the days when ”The Whole Earth Catalog” was a revelation. Perhaps the famously independent filmmaker pulls into a town that beckons with its ungentrified landscape, or its unrenovated diner and bait shop — somewhere in the Alaska of ”Limbo,” the Texas of ”Lone Star,” the West Virginia of ”Matewan.” He hoists pints with the locals, absorbs the socioeconomics of the place, and out comes a script strutted with issues of class and race, jammed with intersecting characters, crowded with words and happenstances and raggedy, found moments of human interaction. Good visual storytelling? That matters to Sayles less. He packs up — and the caravan moves on.
Perhaps that’s how Sayles tootled into Amelia Island (fictionalized as Plantation Island) off northern coastal Florida, where Sunshine State lays out a traditional, highly diagrammed, overwritten, underdirected ensemble story about a disappearing past. In the big picture of black and white residents leading parallel lives in the shadow of encroaching commodification, this is, as Saylesian equations go, the opposite of progress. Yet, ruefully and in unexpected ways, loss ends up invigorating the lives of the two leading characters: Marly (Edie Falco), a beaten-down divorcée who manages her father’s dingy motel, shakes off torpor when big-business developers want to buy up and bulldoze the family business on the white end of the island. Angry, alienated Desiree (Angela Bassett), meanwhile, who left home as a pregnant teenager, returns to establish a truce with her hard-to-please mother (Mary Alice) living on the black end of the island. And while Falco, who is new to the Sayles stock company, refreshes her considerable talents in a milieu far away from ”The Sopranos,” Bassett, an alumna of Sayles’ ”City of Hope” and ”Passion Fish,” occupies Desiree’s space with a graceful sense of proportion.
Like a blue plate special at a theme diner, ”Sunshine State” comes with a lot of overdone side dishes thrown on the table at the same time: One of the corniest subplots (unsteadily evoking the mayhem in Carl Hiaasen’s anarchic Floridian comic novels) involves a dizzy attempt on the part of a local Chamber of Commerce cheerleader (Mary Steenburgen) to invent some instant, tourist-friendly tradition for the area. The movie comes with garnishes, too, in the form of estimable actors breezing through for a scene or two, including Jane Alexander and Ralph Waite as Marly’s parents, Bill Cobbs as an antidevelopment activist, Timothy Hutton as a gentle landscape architect who gets past Marly’s emotional defenses, and Alan King as a kibitzing golfer.
”Sunshine State” surveys the landscape and assesses the issues with a clear passion for sociology. But the cinematography is cloudy, the picture making (slowed by Sayles’ directorial limitations) becalmed. Although we’re used to overlooking such drawbacks for the pleasures of the filmmaker’s politically engaged intelligence, the imbalance is too stark to ignore in this Southern salt air.