Sunshine State
dir. Sayles
Opens Fri July 19
Fox Tower

For a while there, Florida was all set to be the new California. What with Elian, sharks, hurricanes, Disney, and that little election bugaboo, it seemed like our peninsular pals were putting up with more than their share of weirdness, while also seeming to perfectly embody the American Paradox. Given all that baggage, it's only natural that indie film god John Sayles would choose Florida as the setting for Sunshine State, his latest look at what makes this nation tick.

This time out, Sayles' specific political focus is on the way the people perceive their region's past, and how these perceptions contribute to the continued exploitation of land and people. Luckily, he's also got a keen writer's eye for the way real people talk, so the film is more entertaining than that last sentence. The twin narrative paths of Sunshine State are divided, by the ever-present lines of race.

At the center of one strand is Desiree Perry (Angela Bassett), an African American woman who left the fictional town of Delrona Beach as a pregnant teenager, and returns a semi-successful actress with a husband in tow. As Desiree tries to reconcile with the family and friends she left behind, old Dr. Lloyd (Bill Cobbs) tries to rally support against developers intent on remaking the historic community into a retirement destination.

Also contending with the forces of so-called development is motel owner Marly Temple, played by Edie Falco, in a performance that will amaze those who only know her as Carmela Soprano. Marly runs the place ever since her pop lost his sight, and she's tempted by offers from the same bunch of real estate renovators.

The huge cast Sayles put together, too numerous to list here, are uniformly exceptional. The story has texture, depth, and resonance, and never levels judgments. If there's anything a little disappointing about Sunshine State, it's how strongly it resembles Sayles' last few movies in form. But since the guy's on a run now of five or six near-great films, that's pretty easy to forgive.