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‘Suncoast’ review: First-time filmmaker’s coming-of-age tale is affecting

Mark Meszoros – The News-Herald, Willoughby, Ohio (TNS)

An emotional authenticity courses through the veins of “Suncoast,” the filmmaking debut of Laura Chinn.

That’s surely in part because the character-driven, coming-of-age film — a Searchlight Pictures release debuting this week on Hulu — is semi-autobiographical. Like the movie’s main character, Chinn as a teen saw her brother, after a lengthy battle with cancer, be admitted into the same Florida hospice facility that then was home to Terri Schiavo, whose end-of-life saga gripped the nation in the mid-2000s. Undoubtedly, it was the kind of regularly overwhelming experience that it proves to be for Doris, the relatable character portrayed in the film by Nico Parker.

Regardless, “Suncoast” suggests great promise for Chinn — an actress who’s appeared in episodes of several TV shows — behind the camera. Although it occasionally makes the ever-so-slight stumble, the film steadily builds to a climax likely to give the viewer a serious case of the feels.

In the film’s opening moments, Doris pushes her brother, Max (Cree Kawa), in his wheelchair from a pharmacy to the family’s modest home, where she pays him some attention before giving it all to the television. The teen soon flips to a news report about the state of the Schiavo case, in which the vegetative woman’s husband is fighting to have her feeding tube removed against the objections of her parents and others who’ve become consumed with the ordeal.

Doris’ mom, Kristine (Laura Linney), arrives home from work with food for Doris, and we quickly become aware of the tension that exists between them. As we will learn, Kristine’s son means more to her than anything else in the world, and she’s constantly frustrated by what she perceives as a lack of investment in him from his sister. Doris, meanwhile, feels incredibly neglected by her mother.

That tension only increases after Kristine moves her son into the Suncoast Hospice facility, where she is unimpressed by the ever-smiling young head of nursing, Mia (Keyla Monterroso Mejia, “Curb Your Enthusiasm”), and driven mad by a noise in the room neither Doris nor we can hear.

When Kristine decides she’s going to start sleeping in her son’s room — she can’t bear the thought of not being with the young man when he leaves this world — Doris sees it as a chance to make friends at her Christian high school, inviting some cool girls to have a just-canceled party at her house. They don’t know her name but are thrilled to take her up on the offer.

With the recently released musical version still swimming in your head, you worry you know where this is all headed, but the trio of Brittany (Ella Anderson, “Henry Danger”), Laci (Daniella Taylor, “Grown-ish”) and Megan (Ariel Martin, “Zombies 3”) prove to be rather solid friends to Doris.

Similarly, you wonder what’s in store for Doris when she encounters Paul Warren (Woody Harrelson), a Christian who has come to town to advocate for Schiavo along with other sign-wielding protesters outside Suncoast Hospice. Rest assured, though, they merely develop a sweet if also unusual friendship, with Paul trying to impart bits of wisdom on the girl. An endearing running joke in “Suncoast” sees Doris regularly taking their conversations to one depressing place or another, which Paul — who’s been through an ordeal himself — almost seems to appreciate.

As Doris tries to craft something vaguely recognizable as a normal teenage existence — which could include a romance with Nate (Amarr), a friend of the other girls whom Doris has admired in their ethics class, taught by the kind Mr. Ladd (Matt Walsh) — she constantly butts heads with her mother.

Chinn lays it on a little thick when it comes to the diametrically opposed ways Kristine treats her two offspring. However, because Linney is such a terrific actor we still can empathize with Kristine almost all the time. Unsurprisingly, the “Ozark” star shines the brightest in the film’s best-written scene, when Kristine argues with a member of law enforcement outside Suncoast. It’s an affecting moment, thanks to both Linney and Chinn.

In the film’s production notes, Chinn says that she wrote the part of Paul with Harrelson (“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”) in mind, and given what a natural fit the actor is for it, that is easy to believe. You need not agree with Paul on everything he says, but you’ll at least appreciate the way he says it all, Harrelson bringing a distinctive flavor of kindness to each delivery.

Last but not least is Parker, who had a key role in Tim Burton’s 2019 “Dumbo” update and last year portrayed Sarah Miller, daughter of Pedro Pascal’s Joel, in HBO’s acclaimed series “The Last of Us.” She walks a fine line with Doris, the character earning our empathy much of the time but at others behaving in ways that understandably would upset her mother — even if that behavior falls within normal teen-based parameters. Her performance lacks nuance in a couple of key spots, but we’re right there with her emotionally during the climax of “Suncoast.”

The story doesn’t call for anything more than the couple of brief interactions we get between Kristine and Paul, which is nonetheless a bummer, so we’re left wanting Linney and Harrelson to work together in a future project.

For the most part, though, “Suncoast” gives you what you didn’t even know you needed.



3 stars (out of 4)

MPA rating: R (for teen drug and alcohol use, language and some sexual references)

Running time: 1:49

How to watch: On Hulu Friday


(c)2024 The News-Herald (Willoughby, Ohio)

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