The interconnected ensemble piece–the sort in which we follow a group of stories whose characters intersect in odd and surprising ways–is hardly new; Schnitzler’s “Reigen,” the obvious inspiration for many of them, dates back to 1903 (though Max Ophuls’ famous filmization, “La Ronde,” didn’t arrive until 1955). The narrative technique has become especially popular among independent filmmakers: Richard Linklater, for instance, used it back in 1991 in “Slacker,” and returned to it against last year with “Waking Life.” He’s hardly unusual, though; an example seems to appear almost weekly nowadays, be it “Thirteenth Conversations About One Thing” or the still-to-be-released “Love in the Time of Money.” There are plenty of foreign contenders, too–Robert Guediguian’s “The Town is Quiet” is a recent example.

Most of these pictures, whatever their virtues, have a heavy air of contrivance about them. That’s why it’s good to have John Sayles, a past master of the form, return to it after some years’ hiatus with “Sunshine State.” The picture can be considered the latest installment in a series he began with “City of Hope” in 1991 and continued with “Lone Star” five years later. In each case he’s not only created a fascinating circular narrative featuring a cast of well-drawn characters, but raised potent social and political questions about the locale in which the story is set. And if at times his own biases come to the fore a little too blatantly and things get a trifle didactic, it has to be admitted that at least he’s willing to address substantive issues of race, economics and gender. He’s the rare American filmmaker who’s not afraid to show that he has a social conscience, and it’s a pleasure to savor even one of his lesser works. And that, unhappily, is what “Sunshine State” is. The intertwined narrative strands never achieve the effortless inevitability of “Lone Star” (his real masterpiece in the form), nor does the concluding twist have the stunning impact of that film’s ending–to the contrary, it can be seen coming from all too far away. Nor is the framing device of having three golfers explain the historical background to the story as they saunter around the fairway a success; the Greek chorus effect is intrusive and has the effect of hammering points home all too obviously, even if some of the lines are sharp (and delivered by old hands like Alan King with suitable relish).

Still, there’s much to admire in the picture, which, as the title indicates, is set in Florida–to be precise, a place called Plantation Island, whose name indicates the division that’s historically existed there between Delrona Beach, the white area, and the traditionally black Lincoln Beach. As one also expects from Sayles’ usual practice, the title is intended ironically: the story is actually about the dark undercurrents, both social and personal, that swirl about beneath the apparently sunny surface of life in the area, and about the need for people both to come to terms with their past and to accommodate themselves to change without abandoning principle in the process. (The two ideas are linked, a bit preciously, in an analogy that’s drawn at one point to how a swimmer has to deal with a powerful undertow: by swimming parallel to it until it releases you to go your own way again.) Everything revolves around two women. One is Marly Temple (the astonishingly authentic Edie Falco), the unhappy operator of the over-the-hill motel-and- restaurant complex established by her retired father Furman (Ralph Waite). Marly, who’s saddled with a sad-sack ex-husband (Richard Edson), breaking up with aspiring pro golfer Scotty Duval (Marc Blucas), and feeling trapped by her life, falls into the first stages of romance with Jack (Timothy Hutton), a divorced landscape architect working for developers who want to buy up the Temple establishment. Meanwhile Desiree (Angela Bassett) returns to the island after a long absence with her new husband Dr. Reggie Perry (James McDaniel) to visit her mother Eunice (Mary Alice). Desiree–once an aspiring actress who as a youth worked with Marly’s mother Delia (Jane Alexander), the grande dame of the local theatrical troupe, now makes TV informercials; she left home suddenly years ago for reasons of family pride resulting from her flirtation with Flash Phillips (Tom Wright), an erstwhile college football star now returned to buy up black-owned property–in order to preserve the heritage, he claims. Meanwhile the elderly leader of the local black community, Dr. Lloyd (Bill Cobbs), tries to enlist fellow residents in opposing the opening of their ancestors’ enclave to up-scale transformation–a scheme spearheaded by town official Earl Pickney (Gordon Clapp), who’s desperate for money and whose wife Francine (Mary Steenburgen) gamely tries to instill some enthusiasm for the local celebration called Buccaneer Days. Straddling the two groups of locals are Terrell (Alexander Lewis), a troubled relative of Desiree’s taken in by Eunice and assigned to do community service for Delia’s theatrical group, and Billy (Michael Greyeyes), who as a native American bulldozer operator represents both the oldest of American traditions and the force of change. Then there are the shady developers themselves (Sam McMurray, Perry Lang and Miguel Ferrer), as well as Murray Silver (King) and his golfer buddies who periodically interrupt the action to offer disquisitions on the supposedly salutary “remaking” of Florida as an American paradise as they play a few holes of golf.

It might seem inevitable that a narrative with so many participants and interconnected story threads would become artificial and dry, but Sayles is so agile in shifting from episode to episode and painting credible characters in relatively few strokes that “Sunshine State” avoids the pitfall. To be sure, he sometimes pens dialogue that might seem too fluent for the figures he’s created, but he stages their scenes in so natural and unforced (some would say overly deliberate) a fashion that it doesn’t become a major problem. And, as usual, he’s chosen his cast well. Falco is simply superb, capturing Marly’s every nuance with complete assurance, and though Bassett is more effortful, she’s very effective too. The two are joined by a parade of male partners–McDaniel, Hutton, Blucas, Edson–who all give nicely shaded, understated performances. The older cast members–Cobbs, Alice, Waite and Alexander–are slightly less subtle but never descend into simple caricature. Clapp and Steenburgen pull off what might have become hackneyed roles with great skill, and newcomer Lewis is very affecting as well. Cinematographer Patrick Cady captures the local atmosphere without glamorizing it, and Mason Daring contributes a modest but sensitive score.

Given all the skill on display, it’s unfortunate that “Sunshine State” comes after “Lone Star,” which blended its characters and storylines more smoothly and shaped its themes with greater finesse. By any other standard, however, Sayles’ newest effort is a distinguished and thoughtful film, marked by acute writing and a host of splendid performances; it proves that the dean of American independent filmmakers is still true to his own vision and nearly at the top of his form.