Suncoast may sound like a lighthearted teen flick, but Laura Chinn’s semi-autobiographical film packs an emotional punch. This Sundance drama marks the feature debut of Chinn, who drew from her own adolescent experiences of grief and loss. When Chinn was still in high school back in 2005, her brother tragically passed away from brain cancer. In the months prior, he was moved to a Florida hospice facility where Terri Schiavo, the center of a heated right-to-die debate, also happened to be a patient.
Talk about an intense backdrop for navigating those tender high school years. In Suncoast, Chinn processes this profoundly painful time through the eyes of Doris, a quiet teen played with nuance by up-and-comer Nico Parker. Much like Chinn, Doris faces the agonizing reality of her brother Max’s terminal illness while also coming into her own socially, exploring romance and friendship.
Suncoast beautifully captures those bitter and sweet poles of adolescence. At moments, you’ll ache for Doris and her mother Kristine (a raw Laura Linney). At others, you’ll crack a smile as she fumbles through her first high school party. For a debut, Chinn shows remarkable emotional range and depth.
A Teen Torn Between Life and Death
Seventeen-year-old Doris faces unimaginable heartbreak: her beloved brother Max suffers from terminal brain cancer. Their overwrought mother Kristine makes the gutting decision to move Max into a Florida hospice center called Suncoast, still clinging to hope of more time with her son. Little does she know Suncoast has become ground zero for the nation’s fiercest right-to-die debate, with religious protestors swarming outside the room of Terri Schiavo, a woman in a vegetative state whose husband wishes to take her off life support per her wishes.
While Kristine practically lives at Max’s bedside, Doris finds herself home alone night after night. Part petrified, part curious, she capitalizes on her newfound freedom and risks it all to make friends, scoring invites to parties through promises of an empty house and liquor cabinet. Doris even catches the eye of a cute classmate named Nate. But teenage romance and rebellion soon pale against the stark reality awaiting Doris at Suncoast’s doors.
Out of pure happenstance, Doris befriends one of the hospice protestors, a kindly widower named Paul who becomes a father figure. Through late night chats over burgers, Paul helps Doris come to terms with her brother’s fate. But when Kristine catches Doris’s party animal friends mid-revelry and reads her the riot act, mother-daughter tensions hit a breaking point. Kristine bans Doris’s newfound social life and demands she start spending nights with her and Max at the hospice. As she watches her brother’s final moments, Doris realizes some bonds even death cannot sever.
Growing Up Through Grief
At its heart, Suncoast is a coming-of-age tale of the hardest kind. Our heroine Doris stands at a stark fork in life’s road, not quite adult yet forced to confront mortality head-on. As she watches her brother Max suffer while protestors scream about death outside, Doris realizes innocence has an expiration date.
Quiet Doris must find her voice and place amidst the ultimate family crisis. With little guidance, she navigates thrill-seeking rebellion and unlikely connections to locals like Paul. They school Doris on loss from surprising angles. In a clash of generations, Doris and Kristine painfully evolve in their views of death, patient rights, and what it means to live when dying.
Chinn also strikes some grace notes on the chaos grief can sow in families. Kristine’s fierce denial and Doris’s teen escapism show two sides of heartbreak. There are no rulebooks for losing loved ones too soon. Suncoast argues our culture still struggles to discuss death with decency and empathy when cases like Terri Schiavo’s turn terminal illness into a spectacle. Yet Chinn makes a thoughtful case for life’s beauty persisting even in life’s final acts if we have courage to see.
Nico Parker’s Star-Making Turn
Suncoast thrives on the breakout talent of Nico Parker. As Doris, she brings wisdom beyond her years, oscillating between giddy teen and grief-stricken woman with ease. When Parker bares Doris’s heartache, courtroom dramas wish they could capture such stirring humanity. Clearly Parker inherited some acting genes from her famous parents Thandiwe Newton and director Ol Parker.
Yet Suncoast’s potency stems from more than performance. Chinn instills raw intimacy through mining personal tragedy. Quiet conversations between Doris and Paul shine thanks to their blend of poignancy and dark humor. As loss engulfs their lives, they cling to absurdity and joy where they can. Kristine’s domineering outbursts also cut tension at times. Moments resonate as utterly human, free of trite melodrama.
For all its sorrow, Suncoast still understands the thrill of an illicit high school rager. Chinn flips the script on tired teen party clichés, instead showing genuine connections forming under the influence. In this budding friend group, beneath every poor choice lies an aching vulnerability. They accept Doris not out of pity but reciprocity of spirit. At a crossroads between adolescence and oblivion, somehow risk still feels romantic.
Trying to Tackle Too Much
For all its strengths, Suncoast crumbles a bit under its own ambitious weight. In just under two hours, Chinn attempts to juggle about five movies at once. Scenes with Kristine feel divorced from Doris’s teen drama, while Paul’s arcs stay in orbit. With so many characters and issues in flux, no one subplot earns full catharsis.
The most glaring casualty proves the incendiary Terri Schiavo case that first brought Chinn’s family to Suncoast. Beyond shouting protestors, the film fails to truly wrestle with this complex saga that still haunts right-to-die politics. Paul presents a religious perspective, but his views lack nuance. How might Doris feel navigating such clashing beliefs about the dying process while watching her brother waste away?
Quieter moments also slide into maudlin tropes. Montages of Doris and Paul sharing burgers feel a little too twee. The audience craves more substance from their bond beyond Life Lessons 101. Same goes for scenes opposite a grief counselor dispensing wisdom just shy of fortune cookie level.
It doesn’t help that Suncoast gets dragged down visually. Cinematography has a blandly inoffensive vibe common to indie dramadies, all gauzy lens flare minus any atmosphere. Florida’s haunting textures and colors go missing. The synth-pop lite score tries far too hard to cue our emotions from scene to scene. Sometimes what moves us most lies in life’s hushed silences, rather than textbook tearjerking.
Sundance Sensibility on Display
Suncoast tackles more than any ninety-minute indie flick reasonably can, but stumbles stem from noble artistic ambition. In her debut, Chinn establishes a richly layered voice, confronting the unavoidable messiness of loss without flinching. She knows a single pivotal human moment often eclipses issues society inflates into absolutes.
Where Suncoast shines is in capturing universal emotional touchpoints anyone who’s loved and lost would recognize—like sharing slightly warped jokes to keep despair at bay. Other scenes overflow with truth because they happened. In performance and craft, Suncoast shows a filmmaker tapping into the personal to access the profound.
If the film gets swallowed in its own scopes at times, we can forgive these growing pains. Nico Parker emerges a star who can mine endless depth from a simple glance. And Laura Chinn proves she has stories yet to tell that wring our hearts by cutting to the bone. For its flaws and feats, Suncoast heralds the arrival of a vital new independent film voice forged through quiet resilience.
Suncoast can't quite wrangle all of its complex themes and emotional layers into a tightly cohesive narrative, but shows immense promise from debut filmmaker Laura Chinn. Anchored by standout lead Nico Parker, the film authentically captures the messiness of adolescence, grief, and family. It might meander at times, but radiates tenderness and heralds the emergence of a talented new directorial voice.
- Strong lead performance by Nico Parker
- Authenticity from Laura Chinn's personal experiences
- Moving exploration of grief and terminal illness
- Moments of levity and humor
- Fresh take on coming-of-age party movie formula
- Overstuffed script juggling too many subplots
- Underdeveloped political commentary
- Sentimental scenes with Paul and grief counselor
- Flat cinematography and score