The writer and director Laura Chinn amassed a lifetime’s worth of material while in her teens. Her fantastic memoir, “Acne,” is a survivalist tale of enduring her distracted Scientologist parents; one darkly funny low point comes when she drops out of high school and gets a nightclub gig as M.C. of topless Jell-O wrestling events.
“Suncoast,” Chinn’s promising feature debut, fictionalizes the book’s most excruciating part: her older brother’s slow death from brain cancer at the same time — and same Florida hospice — as Terri Schiavo, the vegetative patient whose right to die became a moral and legal flashpoint nationwide in 2005.
With commendable wit and zero self-pity, Chinn sketches the daily surreality of her teenage analogue, Doris (Nico Parker), and mother, Kristine (Laura Linney), navigating a gantlet of protesters who call the hospice an execution chamber. Max (Cree Kawa), the dying boy, controls the story even as he is lying nonverbal and inert. Chinn fearlessly acknowledges that his yearslong illness holds the family hostage. It’s a bummer to spend endless dull hours at Max’s bedside while other kids party. Selfish? A little. False? No.
Linney plays Kristine as a martyr with a hair-trigger temper. Terrified she’ll miss Max’s last breath, she begins sleeping at the hospice and abandons Doris (and, in one hard-to-believe scene, forgets her daughter even exists). When Doris complains, her mother scolds her for being a callow narcissist.
Doris would be more compelling if she was. The script’s fundamental misstep is flattening Doris into a shy innocent — a sympathetic, synthetic template of a good kid. Even softened, there’s much to admire in the film’s bracing truths about witnessing a loved one’s inexorable decline, as when Paul (Woody Harrelson), a big-hearted but obstinate Schiavo protester, says he’ll pray for Max’s survival and Doris blurts: “Please don’t.”