‘Suncoast’ filmmaker tackles coming-of-age tale with Nico Parker, Laura Linney and Woody Harrelson

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'Suncoast' (Part 1)
From left, producer Francesca Silvestri, Woody Harrelson, director Laura Chinn and Nico Parker pose for photographers during a photo call to promote the film 'Suncoast' in London, Sunday, Jan. 28, 2024. (Photo by Vianney Le Caer/Invision/AP)

It just premiered last month at the Sundance Film Festival.

This Friday, the coming-of-age film “Suncoast” drops on Hulu, juxtaposing lighthearted teen antics with heavy themes.

“It’s a dramedy, but we really tried to keep it light,” writer/director Laura Chinn told WTOP. “We really tried to make it buoyant and have comedy and make a movie that you walk away feeling good at the end. … It’s funny! I try to tell people there’s comedy. You don’t have to dread watching it.”

Based on her own life experience caring for her terminally-ill brother, Max, the film follows a Florida teenager named Doris, who craves a “normal” high-school life that’s impossible because her brother is dying from brain cancer at the same hospice center as Terri Schiavo, whose case made national headlines.

“My brother was in hospice with Terri Shaivo in 2005 when I was 18 and he passed away there a few days after she did,” Chinn said. “My brother got sick when he was 16, so he was very young and hadn’t developed a full self yet, but before he was sick he was a skateboarder, super athletic, on a gymnastics team, just a freakishly athletic person and I wasn’t. … He was wonderful, just a funny, charming, extremely handsome, wonderful person.”

Carrying the film is 19-year-old rising star Nico Parker, the daughter of actress Thandiwe Newton (“Crash”) and filmmaker Ol Parker (“Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again”). You’ll recognize the teen actress from her film debut in Tim Burton’s “Dumbo” (2019) and for playing Pedro Pascal’s late daughter in HBO’s “The Last of Us” (2022). She’s also set to star across Gerard Butler in the upcoming live-action version of “How to Train Your Dragon” (2025).

“This girl was born a movie star,” Chinn said. “You meet her and you’re like, ‘Oh, that’s what a movie star looks like.’ … I’m biracial, so I wanted Doris to be biracial, but it’s a small list. There’s not a huge list of 17-year-olds able to emotionally carry a movie. … She’s so funny, deep, wise beyond her years, all things I wanted Doris to come across as, somebody who’s gone through something real and has grown from that and is more mature than her peers.”

Like Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird” (2017), Doris consistently clashes with her stressed-out single mother Kristine, emotionally played by Laura Linney, the prolific actress from “The Truman Show,” “You Can Count on Me,” “Mystic River,” “Kinsey,” “The Squid and the Whale,” “The Savages,” “Ozark” and so many other powerful roles.

“Every choice that Laura Linney makes, you just stand behind the monitor in awe,” Chinn said. “This mother and daughter are both experiencing grief in complete opposite ways. Laura Linney’s character is very activated, she wants to fix it, she wants to make it perfect and do everything for him, and Doris is numb, detached and wants to deny and run away, so everything is pulling Doris away from her brother and everything is pulling Kristine toward.”

Along the way, Doris forms an unlikely friendship with a widowed right-to-life activist, warmly portrayed by Woody Harrelson, who similarly played a mentor in the stellar coming-of-age film “The Edge of Seventeen” (2016).

“He’s a perfect mentor, nothing is too precious with him,” Chinn said. “The way Woody sees the world, his humor, the twinkle in his eye. …. Especially in a role like this where it could have been melodramatic or overly precious as this person who’s gonna guide this young girl through this experience of grief, but instead he’s Woody Harrelson, so everything has so much humor, it’s so grounded. He’s who I envisioned when I was writing this script.”

Chinn’s well-structured script made the 2020 Black List of the best unproduced screenplays, shortly after she launched her Pop TV Series “Florida Girls” (2019). “Suncoast” was produced by Francesca Silvestri and Kevin Chinoy of “The Florida Project” (2017) and eventually picked up for distribution by Searchlight Pictures.

“When we submitted it to Sundance, I wouldn’t even let myself imagine it, but one of our producers had been there before with ‘Tangerine,’ Sean Baker’s film, and she was like, ‘No, we’re getting in!’ I was like, ‘This is such a big dream, Sundance is just this massive idea, I can’t even imagine it.’ When we got in, they were so supportive, the reaction to the movie was so positive, everybody was so kind, it’s really been a little bit like ‘pinch me.'”

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'Suncoast' (Part 2)

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Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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