Before COVID-19 but after 9/11, few news stories arrested the zeitgeist like the Terri Schiavo case. It was as if the media revolved solely around the right to die vs. right to life. Of course, other tragedies were happening, even if they didn’t make headlines. Around the same time Schiavo’s feeding tube was removed, Laura Chinn lost her brother to brain cancer. Chinn’s brother was placed in the same hospice as Schiavo, putting her at the center of a cultural phenomenon. When your own family member is about to pass, though, the biggest news story can feel like background noise.
Laura Chinn draws from experience with her feature directorial debut. A few liberties are taken, changing the name of the hospice where Schiavo resided from Woodside to Suncoast. Chinn also omits certain details about her personal life, such as being raised as a Scientologist. That could always be the focus of another movie, however. Chinn channels her grief through protagonist Doris (Nico Parker), who has been tending to her dying brother Max for as long as she can remember. In a role that feels tailor-made for her, Laura Linney plays Doris’ high-strung mother Kristine, who’s determined to make her son comfortable during his last days on earth.
Unresponsive to his surroundings, it feels like Max is already gone. To an extent, Doris feels like she said goodbye a long time ago. While Kristine vows to remain by Max’s bedside until the end, Doris begins to think about herself for a change. She opens up to a group of cool kids who take her under their wing. At first, it appears that they only like Doris because her mom is never home, making it a go-to locale for parties. Doris becomes a valued member of the group, though, exposing her to friendship for the first time. Even the most tone-deaf member of the gang cares about Doris’ well-being, even if she rarely says the right thing.
Doris also befriends a widow named Paul, played by Woody Harrelson. Although he came to protest Schiavo’s right to die, Paul takes a special interest in Doris, believing that she’s not confronting her grief. While Harrelson is well-suited for the role, Paul plays into the quirky mentor archetype we see in a lot of these indie dramedies. He feels more like a character than a fully fleshed-out person. The dynamic between Doris and Paul could’ve used more exploration for his presence to truly feel earned. It’s the relationship between Doris and Kristine where Suncoast shines.
Both women are grieving, but in opposite ways. One keeps everything bottled up while the other isn’t afraid to let everything out. Doris is ready to think about the future while Kristine is too fixated on the present to care about life after Max. It isn’t until the inevitable comes that both find themselves on the same page. The ending isn’t perfect with not every character receiving closure. As a mother-daughter drama, though, Suncoast sticks the landing thanks to its lead performances and the personal touch of Chinn’s script. The film effectively captures the transitional point between life and death. For some, this period brings grief. For others, it brings relief. It’s also natural to feel guilt for feeling relief. Suncoast touches upon all of the above with charm and real-life wisdom.