Sayles -- who, as always, attracts wonderful players -- is a master at creating complicated cinematic canvasses that capture the essence of a place and time, all the while sketching numerous wholly realized characters in just a few sharp strokes. Sunshine State is his look at two declining beachfront towns, Delrona Beach (peopled mostly by whites) and Lincoln Beach (whose citizens are black). Lincoln was developed in segregation days by a group of black businessmen as a resort for African Americans who would otherwise be excluded from the seashore. In the post-Civil-Rights era, however, Lincoln has lost its purpose. And vacationers of whatever color skip Delrona for posher places elsewhere on the coast. Moreover, both towns are now in the gunsights of developers who want to buy the whole area for a new luxury resort that will include golf courses, private retirement homes and sundry other recreational and residential facilities.
The human players in this drama are mostly grouped around two women, both about 40. Desiree (Angela Bassett, who merits an Oscar nomination) is a modestly successful black actress who grew up in Lincoln but now lives in Boston with her physician husband, Reggie (James McDaniel). Desiree was sent out of town to reside with an aunt when she became pregnant by a Florida State University football star at age 15. She has returned since only once, but she arrives now with quavering hopes for reconciliation with her stern mother Eunice (Mary Alice), who is raising Desiree's troubled teen-age cousin Terrell (Alexander Lewis).
Just up the road in Delrona, Marly (Edie Falco, who merits winning the Oscar) runs her family's motel. In her youth, Marly performed in a water show and married a rock musician. Long divorced and significantly beaten down by life, she continues on a path she never chose, loyally following in her father's footsteps, too weary to nurture a personal dream. Marly's father, Furman (Ralph Waite), sneers at the developers who want to buy his land and business, but secretly Marly would like to sell and pursue a life of her own. In the meantime, maybe a casual flirtation with landscape architect Jack (Timothy Hutton) will blossom into a true romance.
The two families in this tale never interact, and in that way Sunshine State is not the expected study of how race changes things. Desiree and her family have certainly known racial discrimination, but Sayles is far more interested in how the problems in their lives are those of their own making. Furman carries around attitudes of his segregationist past, but he's not an unreconstructed racist, and even in his advanced years he's capable of reflection, reevaluation and growth. Somewhere he has no doubt crossed paths (and likely verbal swords) with Dr. Lloyd (Bill Cobbs), Lincoln's resident political activist. Lloyd has a great speech about how the end of segregation brought cherished freedoms at the cost of a kind of racial unity Lloyd misses. But central among Sayles' points is how much these two aging men have in common. For Furman counters with a compelling speech of his own about how contemporary progress is destroying the livelihood of small businessmen, black and white alike.
As in all his films, Sayles searches for the commonality in the human experience. Here we view with only mottled condemnation the careening endeavors of Flash Phillips (Tom Wright), the old football star now a front man for the developers. And though Marly's boyfriend Jack is a high-ranking developer employee, Sayles paints him almost solely in sympathetic light.
So much to discuss about this movie, so little space for Earl (Gordon Clapp), the suicidal banker who solicits a bribe for his zoning board vote, or his civic promoter wife Francine (Mary Steenburgen), who worries (appropriately) about her irrelevance, or Marly's seemingly ditzy mother Delia (Jane Alexander), who may just have the sharpest head for business on the coast. The themes are resolutely ambivalent. Marly needs to get away, but Desiree proves that getting away requires coming home again. The developers are voracious, but Jack can make their reconstructed communities beautiful, and people do enjoy what they build.
Sayles has palpable affection for his characters, but he doesn't romanticize them. They are all the pawns of forces beyond their control. For most, life will prove more discouraging than fulfilling. Hence Sayles' two enduring pieces of advice, Marly's "Keep that smile on your face, even if you're drowning," and Furman's "Always swim parallel to the shore, for no matter how strong you are, the undertow will pull you down." Brave, sage advice for a melancholy world.