Sunshine State; John Sayles, 2002

Sunshine State

“In the beginning there was land infested with crocodiles. If you’re talking about retirement bungalows, that’s not a selling point.”

“We weren’t selling land. Dreams are what you sell. Concept. Sunshine. You sell sunshine.”

Fun and funny, this story from writer and director   John Sayles, who has given us Matewan, Passion Fish, and Eight Men Out, seeks to explain what happened to the State of Florida through multiple perspectives on Florida real estate development. Sunshine State pits small town folks against big business, with the little guys prevailing with the help of Florida’s original settlers, because—John Sayles.

Delrona Beach is a community in transition, as are the individual characters, many of whom are weighing the options of staying put, clinging to what they have, or cashing in while they still can and moving on.

In Sunshine State, developers are “buzzards” and golf courses are “nature on a leash.”

The town’s annual Buccaneer Days festival celebrates pirate culture, while developers come to clear-cut the shabby beach town and replace it with luxury resorts for Northerners.

Planners will find familiar turf here as developers speak of hostile native populations, and residents complain to the Board of County Commissioners that notice was not properly advertised, meeting times were not suitable, and eminent domain is always out of the question.

In an exchange between landscape architect, Jack Meadows (Timothy Hutton) and reluctant hotel operator, Marly Temple (Edie Falco), Jack explains his chosen profession:

Jack: “There’s this guy, Frederick Law Olmsted…You take land that’s wild and inaccessible. You refine it some. Showcase the natural beauty. You accentuate the natural topography. You create a space for everybody, rich, poor, in between, where they can come together and appreciate it.”

Marly: “So we’re all invited over to Exley Plantation for a fish fry?”

Jack: “The populist part of it has fallen away.”

 The soliloquy by Marly’s father, Furman Temple, an elderly diabetic who’s clinging to his hotel business, reveals a side of developers that planners should note:

“In my day, life was simpler. You knew where you stood. A man was left to make his own way in the world. You didn’t have all these pressure groups, these advocate groups, special interest groups handicapping the race. It went to the smartest, the strongest and the swiftest. A man could carve out a little something for himself and he’d knowed he’d earned it. No whooping cranes. No spotted owl. Florida gator. The colored man, the white man, the Spanish: they all started out from scratch. Couldn’t survive the course—it was just tough tittie. Nowadays what they got ain’t natural. They got us so zoned, regulated, politically corrected, and environmentally sensitized to the point where it’s only the multiinternationals with a dozen lawyers sitting around like buzzards waiting for something to litigate that can afford to put one brick on top of another. Little guy, no matter how much grit or imagination he brings to it ain’t got a chance. They got him tied down so he can’t hardly breath.”

A group of fat cat golfers, including Alan King, bookend the movie like a Greek chorus, providing commentary that contains some of its funniest lines: “Florida. The old name means, in Seminole, ‘you shouldn’t go there’.” And: “Nature is overrated. But we’ll miss it when it’s gone.” At the end of the film, we see that the golf course they’ve been playing on is the grassy median of a busy commercial highway.

Sunshine State was filmed 30 miles north of Jacksonville, Florida, on Amelia Island. Some scenes were shot in historic Fernandina Beach.

John Sayles has long told character driven stories in picturesque environments divided by race and class. He captures a personality of place so deep and complex, you feel like you’ve grown up there, knowing the backstories and the gossip.

Other Works by John Sayles:

Limbo, Alaska

Silver City, Colorado

Lone Star, Texas

Matewan, 1920 West Virginia coal miners strike

City of Hope, municipal corruption in a small eastern city

From Amazon:

From acclaimed writer/director John Sayles (Lone Star, Passion Fish) comes an unforgettable portrait of a richly diverse Florida town threatened by real estate developers. Edie Falco, Angela Bassett and Timothy Hutton lead a remarkable ensemble cast.

A tidal wave of change is coming to Delrona Beach, Florida. Out-of-state developers have descended upon the sleepy coastal community with the promise of big bucks and bigger changes. Torn between honoring family obligations and the lure of quick cash, the locals greet the outsiders with a wildly mixed reception. Marly (Falco, TV’s “The Sopranos”) is eager to sell the family business and start her life over. As caretaker to her father’s motel and restaurant, she’s grown resentful of missed opportunities, but finds a glimmer of hope in a tentative romance with a visiting landscape architect (Oscar winner Timothy Hutton). Desiree (Oscar nominee Angela Bassett) left two years ago to escape scandal and make a name for herself as an actress. Reluctantly returning home, she finds her strong-willed mother (Mary Alice) unwilling to let go of the past.