‘Suncoast’ Review: Nico Parker, Laura Linney, Woody Harrelson In Heartfelt Semi-Autobiographical Story Colliding With Real Life Events – Sundance Film Festival

Laura Chinn’s feature film writing and directing debut hits close to the heart — her heart especially — in a semi-autobiographical story set in 2005 and inspired by her own growing pains at a dark time in her family’s life as her brother is dying of cancer and moved unknowingly into what turned out to be the same nursing facility, Suncoast, where Terri Schiavo was also a patient.

If you don’t know the name, Terri Schiavo, you probably weren’t seeing the news in 2005 as this was the notorious right-to-die case that actually started in 1998 in a dispute between Schiavo’s husband and parents over removing the feeding tube of the woman who was in a irreversible vegetative state. It sparked worldwide protests by many on all sides including religious zealots, non-stop news coverage, government interference and more all playing out in front of this Florida facility where Chinn’s brother, coincidentally, was spending his final months, a place where their mother had hoped he would find peace as the end neared.

More from Deadline

So this is the backdrop, but not the center of Chinn’s film which though set during real events in her life is largely invented in terms of details and characters, even if Nico Parker’s Doris stands in for her in the most emotional, confusing, grief-filled parts of the situation.

At its soul this is the coming-of-age story of Doris, who is caught in the middle between the prospect of the slow and agonizing dying days of caring for her beloved brother and dealing with a distraught, demanding mother, Kristine (Laura Linney), and her own need to live the normal life of a teenage girl and all that implies including trying to make friends and even a budding romance.

Doris lives modestly with Kristine, but the non-communicative brother is never out of sight or mind, a weight too big to handle so he is moved into Suncoast. Kristine just can’t fathom being away from him for too long so she decides she must also spend nights in his room there. Concurrently during her own visits, Doris strikes up a friendship with one of the protestors outside, Paul Warren (Woody Harrelson) who is still grieving himself from the loss of his wife. This leads even to an enlightening meal at the local diner where they discuss life and death and cement a friendship.

Trying to impress and make friends at her school Doris sees her mother’s increasing absences as an opportunity to do just that, even offering up her home for parties, drinking games, the kind of stuff teens do. They take her up on it, and she even has the pangs of new love with one of the students, Nate (Amarr), until one night when it all blows up in Doris’ face when Kristine unexpectedly comes home after being denied entrance to Suncoast that evening, and to her horror even finds some of the boys in a state of undress, making everything all that much worse for Doris as Kristine now demands she spend nights at Suncoast with her at her brother’s side as the clock ticks toward his inevitable death.

Chinn is most interested in seeing this young woman conflicted by her duty to a family in crisis and living her own life. Fortunately she has the engaging Parker (daughter of Thandiwe Newton and director Ol Parker) who plays Doris with a great deal of compassion and complexity. It is a character who requires our empathy, that the audience understand emotionally her actions, even if they don’t seem so well thought out at times. Linney again proves why she is one of the best around by taking a role that could have been one dimensional, but instead makes us feel the gut-wrenching grief of a woman about lose one child but also trying to hang on to the other who is very much alive. She isn’t exactly likable for much of the film, but Linney makes her undeniably human so we can see and understand what is tearing her apart. Harrelson brings much needed warmth and kindness to his supporting role, someone who represents the essence of why we need to communicate and accept each other as human beings, a key point of the conflicts in the film.

Also on board are a number of fine young actors including Ella Anderson, Daniella Taylor, Amarr, and Ariel Martin, along with veterans like Matt Walsh who make the most of brief screen time.

For Chinn this is clearly all personal, and though she has worked as a showrunner in television projects such as Florida Girls, this fine and moving drama marks a leap forward in a career that undoubtedly will be one to watch. Suncoast is in the official dramatic competition at Sundance and had its World Premiere today. It will open theatrically in a limited run on February 2, followed by streaming a week later on Hulu.

Producers of the Searchlight film are Jeremy Plager, Francesca Silvestri, Kevin Chinoy and Oly Obst.

Title: Suncoast
Festival (Section): Sundance (U.S. Dramatic Competition)
Distributor: Searchlight Pictures
Release date: February 2 (limited theatrical); February 9 (Steaming on Hulu)
Director/Screenplay: Laura Chinn
Cast: Nico Parker, Laura Linney, Woody Harrelson, Ella Anderson, Daniella Taylor, Amarr, Ariel Martin, Matt Walsh
Rating: R
Running time: 1 hr 49 mins

Best of Deadline

Sign up for Deadline's Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.