Review | ‘Suncoast’: Credence in a Clearwater revival

(2.5 stars)

“Write what you know,” they say, and they’re not wrong. But sometimes you need help, and Laura Chinn’s “Suncoast” is blessed with a cast that allows the writer-director’s debut film to take wing whenever it struggles to lift off. A tenderhearted story of a teenage girl’s coming of age in the midst of family tragedy, the film arrives on Hulu after premiering last month at the Sundance Film Festival, where it picked up a breakthrough performance jury prize for its young lead actress, Nico Parker.

While still a little raw as a performer, Parker is a warm and instantly empathetic presence as Doris, who’s having a worst-case-scenario 14th year on Earth. Her father died when she was 3, her older brother Max (Cree Kawa) is dying of brain cancer, and her mother Kristine (Laura Linney) is a working single mom so angrily devoted to her son’s final days that she has no patience for a young person’s growing pains.

Linney, as usual, accomplishes the impossible, which in this case involves getting us to see Kristine as not only a maddening master of parental guilt-mongering but a type-A perfectionist navigating a grossly imperfect world. Max is already in a coma when “Suncoast” begins and is shortly thereafter moved to the title hospice facility, where Kristine decides she will remain at his side until the end comes. That frees Doris to stay at home, where a shy girl can enlarge her social circle by inviting the school’s queen bees to party at her house.

The year is 2005, the location Clearwater, Fla., and the parking lot at Suncoast Hospice is jammed with anti-euthanasia activists loudly protesting a judge’s decision to let the brain-dead Terri Schiavo be disconnected from her feeding tube. That nationally reported story serves as a chaotic backdrop to “Suncoast,” and it also provides Doris with a new acquaintance, a grieving widower named Paul (Woody Harrelson), who has come to town to join the protests and quickly strikes up a friendship with the girl moping around the care center premises.

Harrelson provides his patented raffish spin, but it’s never quite clear what we, let alone Doris, are supposed to make of Paul. Is he a role model for coping with family loss, a wise sage, a lost soul, a creep? The movie settles for all but the last, and while a little uncertainty is welcome, too much is the sign of a rookie filmmaker. “Suncoast” veers around some clichés of the indie teen drama genre while embracing others: It’s refreshing that Doris’s new friends — all much wealthier and shallower than she — prove to be more supportive than the standard movie mean girls, but Chinn’s script still rolls forward with over-familiar beats of obstacle and object lesson.

There’s a throbbing personal heart under the tropes, though. “Suncoast” is dedicated to the director’s brother Max, who died while she was in high school, and that connection provides the movie with enough genuine emotions to break free of cliché, especially in the final scenes, which earn their tears honestly. As filmmaking, the movie is straightforward enough — unobtrusively shot, sensitively scored, lacking only a sense of urgency in its pacing. As a memory play and a launchpad for both a writer-director and the young actress playing her, it’s a very good start. And as your latest reminder that Laura Linney can do just about anything, it’s a bracing kick in the pants.

R. Streaming on Hulu. Teen drug and alcohol use, language, and some sexual references. 109 minutes.

Ty Burr is the author of the movie recommendation newsletter Ty Burr’s Watch List at

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