Semi-autobiographical Suncoast explores end-of-life decisions with grace
Topical movies tend to come down hard on the side of a particular issue that a filmmaker wants to shine a light on, with little to no ambiguity as to their true feelings. The new Hulu film Suncoast is a different beast, as it approaches a controversy from the recent past in a very personal way that’s only tangential to the larger issue.
Doris (Nico Parker) is a teenager who helps take care of her disabled brother, Max (Cree Kawa), who has brain cancer, leaving him unable to see, walk, or talk. As he approaches the end of his life, their mom Kristine (Laura Linney) decides to put him in a care facility called Suncoast near their home in Clearwater, Florida, one which just so happens to also being caring for a woman named Terri Schiavo.
Schiavo is a woman who came to be known in the early 2000s because her persistent vegetative state caused a dispute between her husband and her parents, with protesters joining both sides. The film has one of the protesters, Paul (Woody Harrelson) befriend Doris during several meetings outside of Suncoast. At the same time, Doris uses her mom’s fixation on Max’s needs over her own to open up their house to her high school classmates, broadening her friend group in the process.
Written and directed by first-time feature filmmaker Laura Chinn, the film has a lived-in feeling that’s confirmed by a dedication to Chinn’s brother Max at the end. Telling the semi-autobiographical tale of her own family’s experiences allows Chinn to broach the topic of end-of-life decisions in a relatively light way, acknowledging the emotions of the issue while still giving time for more fun scenes.
To this end, scenes about high schoolers acting immature and/or irresponsibly surround heavier scenes, such as one where Doris and Paul debate whether or not letting Schiavo die is “murder.” Complicating matters is the knowledge that Max will die sooner rather than later, and whether it’s fair to Doris for her to give up any semblance of a social life to “be there for her brother.”
While the film has a very dramatic issue at its core, Chinn does a great balancing act of acknowledging the controversy but never letting it overwhelm the more intimate story she’s trying to tell. The pain Doris is feeling on multiple fronts is evident from the beginning of the film, and Chinn manages to craft a coming-of-age story that feels familiar and different at the same time.
Helped by a mass of curly hair and an innocent face, Parker turns in a great performance that, coupled with a memorable appearance in the 2023 HBO series The Last of Us, should bode well for her acting future. Linney and Harrelson are, per usual, fantastic in their supporting roles, elevating every scene they’re in. The actors playing Doris’ classmates are hit-and-miss, but Daniella Taylor and Amarr show some promise.
Suncoast is a family drama that talks a lot about death without ever coming across as morbid or depressing. Chinn, who’s spent most of her career writing comedic material, makes an auspicious film debut, making a film that resonates on multiple levels without being cloying or preachy.
Suncoast is now streaming on Hulu.