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‘Suncoast’ Review: Laura Linney and Nico Parker in Contrived but Affecting Tearjerker About Grief and Compassion

There’s a core of authentically devastating family experience and personal investment that saves Suncoast from its unskilled handling, giving this grief drama, coming-of-age combo a heart to counter its predictability. Cynics too often roll their eyes while generalizing about the tired formula of the “Sundance movie,” but this one ticks all the boxes and even features an impossibly saintly character played by Woody Harrelson, who could have been conceived expressly for Park City audiences hungry for the prescribed dosage of funny-sad feels. On that elementary level, actor Laura Chinn’s first effort as writer-director gets by.

What makes Suncoast more palatable than those unpromising elements would suggest is the knowledge that Chinn is working from the autobiographical kernel of losing her brother to cancer as a teenager in 2005, when what should have been his peaceful final few months of hospice care were disrupted by the media circus and sanctimonious religious crusaders outside the Florida facility, protesting the Terry Schiavo “Right to Die” case.

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Every time you grow weary of the movie’s schematic plot mechanics, its clumsy attempts to cover too many bases, its aughts-era emo needle drops and its absence of visual interest, the raw hurt of the director’s experience comes through with a ray of redeeming sensitivity. Those moments are often marked by Este Haim and Christopher Stracey’s pretty score.

The other factor in its corner is smart casting, particularly in the central roles of Chinn’s fictional stand-in, Doris, played with tenderness and a whirl of internal conflict by Nico Parker, and her emotionally and physically exhausted, unapologetically spiky mother, Kristine, a part that lets Laura Linney go full Shirley Terms of Endearment MacLaine.

All that means Suncoast is by no means without merit. But Searchlight’s decision to shunt the film almost directly to Hulu — available from Feb. 9, following a week in select theaters — seems right and it will play just fine on the streaming service.

A high school senior with no friends, Doris has spent years caring for her brother at home while widowed Kristine works long waitressing shifts to cover the medical bills of her son, whose brain cancer has spread elsewhere in his body and his unresponsive neurological condition has remained unchanged for some time.

Given that her brother hasn’t spoken in years, Doris is convinced talking to him is pointless, but Kristine insists that love and communication and surroundings are vital to his quality of life for whatever time he has left. To that end, she moves him into a pleasant room at the Gulf Coast hospice that’s been in the news because of the uproar over Schiavo, whose husband and legal guardian is attempting to honor her wishes by taking her off life support, a decision vehemently opposed by her parents. This has necessitated additional security, with cops remaining stationed outside to control the protest crowd, all of which feeds Kristine’s justifiable irritability.

Believing that her son will get lonely in the room and making no secret of her lack of faith in the nursing staff, Kristine starts spending nights there on a bunk bed, leaving Doris at home alone.

Since the script doesn’t trust the audience to get how the polarizing views around a controversial case might impact Doris’ feelings about her brother’s end-of-life treatment, schoolteacher Mr. Ladd (Matt Walsh, who deserves better) engages the class in an ethics debate. Meek and mousy Doris is paying attention, unlike shallow rich kids Laci (Daniella Taylor), Brittany (Ella Anderson) and Nate (Amarr), who occupy the desks nearest hers but seem unaware of her existence.

That changes when she overhears them complaining that a friend’s home has been eliminated as a “hurricane party” venue after his parents changed their mind about evacuating before a big storm in the Florida Keys. Doris pipes up to say they can have it at her house, prompting them instantly to adopt her.

There’s plenty of humor in the cluelessly patronizing comments of Doris’ new friends about coming into her “scary neighborhood.” After popping some synthetic party drugs, Brittany exclaims, “This house is so small, it’s like a dollhouse. It’s so beautiful!” But as fun as some of this stuff is, and as appealing as the actors are, it belongs in a different breed of teen movie.

Chinn seems to want to have it both ways by suggesting mean girl insensitivity but then making Brittany and Laci decent human beings. Only their dim third wheel, Megan (Ariel Martin), borders on snarky condescension once Doris is accepted into the group and it appears her crush on Nate might be reciprocated. Thanks to Laci’s generosity with her wardrobe discards, they introduce Doris to the world of crop tops, cutouts and thigh boots, as well as fake IDs. But when Kristine comes home at an inopportune moment and threatens to erase all the social progress Doris has made, the mother-daughter conflict sparks fly.

It’s a requirement in scripts like this that the main characters hurtle forward on parallel paths toward major events that are bound to coincide. In this case that’s the looming death of Doris’ brother and her ultimate acceptance into the cool clique in a slinky sequined gown at the prom. But everything in Suncoast is so carefully signposted that there are no surprises.

Despite some regrettable dialogue with the hospice grief counselor (Pam Dougherty), whom Kristine prefers to avoid, Linney classes up the movie with her refusal to soften her character’s harsh edges, her torrent of rage and pain, her deep denial about her son’s perception of anything going on around him and her raw nerves. Kristine has made Doris feel invisible in the family, her needs unimportant, but that coldness is established explicitly to have it melt.

Parker is lovely, dignifying even the rote moments like Doris flipping through a family photo album or watching a childhood home video, her melancholy edging into guilt.

The Harrelson character, however, is harder to excuse. Paul is an evangelical who’s rigidly conservative enough to refer to the hospice as an “execution chamber” but also caring enough to see Doris and all but declare: “You look like you need a father figure.” He’s a version of the stock magical outsider.

Doris, in her eagerness to feel the rush of a normal adolescence, has fooled herself into believing that her brother’s death will be a release for him, for her and for their mother. But Paul exists to share his wisdom about loss, clueing her in on the wrenching separation she’s going to feel when her brother goes, on the hole in her life he’ll leave behind.

We know that tough awakening is coming, not because Paul has foretold it but because screenwriting 101 has so painstakingly mapped out the principal characters’ agonizing paths to catharsis. There’s heartbreaking experience behind this movie and genuine tears earned in its closing act — if only we could have gotten there with less of the textbook manipulation.

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