Producers: Jeremy Plager, Francesca Silvestri, Kevin Chinoy and Oly Obst   Director: Laura Chinn   Screenplay: Laura Chinn   Cast: Laura Linney, Nico Parker, Woody Harrelson, Daniella Taylor, Ella Anderson, Amarr, Keyla Monterroso Mejia, Cree Kawa, Matt Walsh, Pam Dougherty, Scott McArthur, Ariel Martin, Jason Burkey and Danielle Henchcliffe   Distributor: Searchlight Pictures

Grade: C+

Laura Chinn’s semi-autobiographical debut feature presents a coming-of-age story against the backdrop of an end-of-life scenario.  While one can admire the ambition the film’s multilayered combination represents, “Suncoast” proves unable to balance its disparate plot threads successfully.

Nico Parker stars as Doris, who lives with her mother Kristine (Laura Linney) in Clearwater, Florida near the titular nursing facility, which caters to patients who are near death.  Kristine has been caring for her son Max (Cree Kawa), who suffers from terminal brain cancer and is now totally bedridden, at home—with her daughter’s help—but has decided to place him in Suncoast for his last days. 

But the hospice is the center of controversy; it also houses Terri Schiavo, who has been in a permanent vegetative state for fifteen years after suffering cardiac arrest in 1990.  Her husband has for years been prodding the courts to allow the removal of her feeding tube, an action opposed by her parents.  Now, as the case is reaching a conclusion, protesters from around the country have descended on Suncoast, most in support of her parents’ position.  Among them is Paul Warren (Woody Harrelson), a widower still grieving his wife’s sudden death years before.

Doris, called on by Kristine to do duty at home for so long, is an almost invisible presence at the Christian high school she attends.  She does participate in the Ethics class conducted—rather clumsily, one might note—by Mr. Ladd (Matt Walsh), but that’s hardly something that will gain her the peer acceptance she’s yearning after.  So when she overhears some classmates complaining about parental restrictions on their holding a party, she impulsively offers her house as a possibility, knowing that her mother will be spending the nights at Suncoast at Max’s bedside.  Rich girls Brittany (Ella Anderson), Laci (Daniella Taylor) and Megan (Ariel Megan), as well as their handsome pal Nate (Amarr), eagerly accept, and they—along with a slew of other classmates—descend on the place.  Naturally things take a bad turn when Kristine returns unexpectedly, kept out of the facility by the police responding to threats of violence.

But that doesn’t stop Doris, or her new friends.  They introduce her to drugs and drink, and are often as insensitive as most teens are, but they take a genuine interest in her, even lending her clothes for nights out and, ultimately, the prom.  She no longer feels isolated, and, as the saying goes, is beginning to become part of the group.

As she’s growing up as a teenager, though, Doris is becoming more estranged from her mother, whose concern for her son as his condition worsens becomes obsessive.  She has little control over her temper, lashing out at anyone—the chief nurse at the hospice (Keyla Monterroso), the cop (Jason Burkey) preventing her from getting in to spend the night with Max—who interferes with her attention to her dying son.  And she dismisses offers of help that come from the Suncoast grief counselor (Pam Dougherty), an elderly lady she initially takes for a patient.

In a way, Kristine’s anger is understandable.  But her devotion to Max has made her less than attentive to Doris’ needs.  At one point, talking to the grief counselor, she even briefly forgets that she has a second child.  And she has no compunction in berating her daughter for failing to be sufficiently caring toward her brother, in effect guilting her about going out with her friends rather than sitting at Max’s side and talking to him despite his complete unresponsiveness.

This aspect of the narrative is handled with considerable skill; even if the shifts from the teen coming-of-age material and the domestic drama aren’t always handled very smoothly by Chinn and editor Sara Shaw, the nuanced performance of Parker is a great asset, and though Linney comes across as one-note and shrill, the character’s emotional turmoil makes her single-mindedness credible.  The other young performers occasionally come on too strong, but are agreeable enough, and the other members of the supporting cast are all solid. 

But the additional element regarding the Schiavo case and the intervention of Paul, an evangelical right-to-life protestor who nevertheless treats Doris with a nonjudgmental, paternalistic air, comes across not only as implausible but unnecessary.  One might blame Harrelson for the fact  that the character he’s playing seems like a plaster saint, but the truth is, Paul is a screenwriting contrivance and the actor does what he can in a role it’s practically impossible to make convincing.  Harrelson falls back on his general likability, but it’s not enough to make this portion of the plot ring true—even though it does use an actual courtroom battle as a backdrop, if an overly convenient one in dramatic terms, and reflects Chinn’s own experience.

“Suncoast” has an indie movie look, with a gritty production design by Valeria De Felice and costumes by Megan Stark Evans that reflect the period without being overly ostentatious about it.  The cinematography by Bruce Francis Cole is good if a bit dim, declining to beautify the locale while emphasizing the dankness of the interiors, and the score by Este Haim and Christopher Stracey is similarly adequate but unmemorable.

The reach of “Suncoast” exceeds its grasp, but its attempt to tell a story about growing up within the context of family tragedy has resonance, even if it’s hobbled by some unconvincing elements.