Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Dealing with death at an early age

    Max, a teenager, has fallen into a coma as a result of terminal brain cancer. His mom brings him to a hospice where he'll receive palliative care. As it turns out, the young man has landed in the same Florida hospice where Terry Schiavo's husband is fighting a bitter right-to-die battle. 
   In Suncoast, director Laura Chinn’s debut film, the din of protest surrounds the hospice, but the movie doesn't boil with issue-driven fervor. 
   Instead, Chinn assays the strain caused by a Max's impending death while also exploring his younger sister's struggle to experience something akin to normal adolescence, assuming there is such a thing.
  Understandably unnerved, Max's single mother (Laura Linney) can't focus on much else. It's difficult for her to see that her son's illness also casts a shadow over her daughter (Nico Parker), a high school senior who has had to care for Max so Mom could work.
  Afraid to leave her son alone, Mom decides to move into the hospice with him. Parker's Doris is left on her own, a potentially enviable position for a teenager. 
   Despite some initial wariness, Doris allows a group of girls to host parties at her modest home. She begins to develop friends. She begins to see what she's been missing.
  Chinn mostly avoids mean-girl cliches, obtaining nicely modulated performances from her youthful cast and from Linney as a preoccupied woman who can't always suppress her rage. 
   The movie has a mild Christian backdrop. Woody Harrelson plays a widower and protest regular. Religious but not dogmatic, he tries to befriend Doris, encouraging her to acknowledge her grief.
   Harrelson's Paul doesn't allow his beliefs to stand in the way of trying to help a kid who doesn't share them, a nice touch, but his character seems a bit of digression.
   Doris attends a Christian school but neither she nor her classmates are particularly religious and one of her teachers (Matt Walsh) conducts an ethics class that's so even-handed, it feels contrived.
  Through it all, Chinn doesn't forget that her story hinges on grief and loss. She brings the drama to its tear-jerking peak during Doris's prom, a celebration she's clearly earned even though it's taking place against a backdrop of illness and death.
   This keen sense of loss elevates the movie even when Chinn rounds off the sharp edges a better movie might have had. She makes the heartbreaking finality of what mother and daughter must face feel achingly real.

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