“Suncoast’s” writer/director, Laura Chinn, had a brother, Max, who suffered from cancer. He ended up in the same hospice facility as Terri Schiavo, who died in 2005, and Ms. Chinn, in her directorial debut, dedicated the film to her late brother.
“Suncoast” was the first of the eight Sundance films I watched. It held particular significance for me, because I had also used the Terri Schiavo case as a plot background for the third novel in my series “The Color of Evil.” As such, I had to look up all the particulars of this “right to life” case that stretched from 1998 to 2005. Terri, who cardiac arrested at age 26, ended up in the hospice facility in Pinellas Park, Florida and the entire drama played out on the national scene with 14 different court cases and judgments involved, going all the way up to the President of the United States (George W. Bush).
The best thing about the largely autobiographical story was the acting. Laura Linney portrays Kristine, the mother of Nico Parker. Woody Harrelson has a role as an activist who is protesting attempts to remove the feeding tube of the brain dead Schiavo. There were 14 different court actions and many protests in the streets outside the facility.
The acting by all concerned is excellent. Nico Parker, who portrayed Pedro Pascal’s daughter Sarah in “the Last of Us,” won the film the Sundance U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Performance. She was extraordinary amongst an outstanding cast.
In addition to the euthanasia/right to die theme, the film does a good job of portraying the difficulties that beset lead Nico Parker as Doris, when she attempt to live the life of a normal teenager. Her mother (Laura Linney) seems to expect more from the teenager in terms of caring for her invalid brother. Doris (Nico Parker) is simply trying hard to have a more balanced, normal teenage experience in the midst of terrible tragedy. The film is a real tear-jerker.
The character portrayed by Laura Linney comes off as very authoritarian and somewhat manipulative, especially when she tells her daughter that her brother is dying that very night at a time when the young girl is at a party that resembles Prom. Of course this brings out the sister’s guilt and she rushes to the hospice, only to learn that her mother overstated the situation. Later, her mother apologizes, but it is a really insensitive and unloving thing for her mother (Kristine) to have done. Only a truly great actress could have made this character halfway human, as her behavior in regards to her healthy daughter seemed extremely destructive at times.
Woody Harrelson’s character of Paul Warren was similarly negative at times. His entire character seemed extraneous, to me, added simply to beef up a plot theme. Most of us who have daughters in this age range would warn our teenaged daughters about associating with a strange guy who shows up at a hospice as a protester. It’s the old “danger/stranger” thing. It didn’t make much sense that, when Kristine (Laura Linney) learns about the random friendship that has sprung up between her underage daughter and this stranger from out of town, she doesn’t inquire further and warn Doris about being too trusting of the stranger. I found the brief scene in the restaurant where Doris introduces her mother to Paul to be strange and unrealistic (and wanted the two to interact).
Other reviews have bemoaned the opportunity to put two such fine actors onscreen at the same time. Having met Laura Linney in Chicago the year (2007) she and Philip Seymour Hoffman co-starred in “The Savages” I agree that finding a way to have these two talents share the screen and exchange dialogue would have been a welcome addition to the plot (and probably would have improved the dialogue). On the bright side, there is a great scene where the police insist that Kristine must move along in her car. Linney was great during this exchange, but the writing elsewhere was not as good as the actors saying the lines. The cast really saved the film at many points.
The thing that detracts from the film, of course, is the entire downer theme. It’s a solemn, serious topic, sensitively treated and could serve as a good lesson in what not to do for a parent who finds himself or herself in this extremely difficult situation (while raising one healthy teenaged child while caring for a terminally ill teenager.) It is precisely this horrible predicament that keeps us from totally turning on the Laura Linney character of Kristine. Without an outstanding actress like Laura Linney in the part, the characterization of the mother could have come off much more poorly.
It was an impressive Sundance debut directorial debut for the fledgling director and newcomer Nico Parker, daughter of Thandie Newton, did a fine job as the lead actress, with able support from Laura Linney and Woody Harrelson. There are several excellent supporting performances from the young actors/actresses portraying her school friends as well. “Suncoast” begins streaming on Hulu on February 9th, Friday. It’s a tear-jerker but a well-done one.