The Story Behind Suncoast, a Semi-Autobiographical Drama About the Gray Areas of Grief

The Story Behind Suncoast, a Semi-Autobiographical Drama About the Gray Areas of Grief

Most people have never had to decide whether they should attend prom or make sure they’re at their brother’s bedside when he dies. It’s hard to imagine being faced with such a choice—or feeling conflicted about it in the moment. And that makes sense. In a culture that avoids candid discussions about death as if doing so will help us avoid the experience itself, many—especially those facing loss—want to believe there’s a way to deal with death that is both morally pure and totally protective against the pain of grief.

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With her semi-autobiographical film Suncoast, out Feb. 9 on Hulu after premiering at Sundance earlier this year, Laura Chinn challenges the idea that there is a “right” way to grieve. The debut filmmaker does know what it’s like to navigate the milestones of adolescence while experiencing profound loss. When she was a teenager, her brother Max was diagnosed with brain cancer. After six years of being cared for by Chinn and her family, he entered hospice care in 2005, at a facility in Florida called Suncoast. At the time, Suncoast was also home to someone whose case was subject to a storm of controversy: Terri Schiavo. Schiavo entered a vegetative state after a heart attack in 1990. Eight years later, her husband and parents began a lengthy legal battle over whether her feeding tube should be removed, garnering the attention and advocacy of everyone from the press to the Pope. As she writes in her memoir Acne, Chinn came of age as her brother’s life was ending, while also contending with the crowds gathered outside his hospice facility to protest for or against decisions made about Schiavo’s treatment.

This is also the situation faced by Doris (Nico Parker) and her mother Christine (Laura Linney) in Suncoast when Doris’s brother enters hospice care, in a story mirroring Chinn’s own. Doris and Christine clash as they struggle to cope with or even acknowledge their grief, Parker’s quiet brilliance matched beautifully against Linney’s dark humor and unstoppable warmth. Left home alone for large stretches of time, Doris finds herself with a group of friends who misunderstand and adore her in equal measure (including Ella Anderson as Brittany, Daniella Taylor as Laci, Ariel Martin as Megan, and Amarr as Nate). Outside Suncoast, she meets mourning protestor Paul (Woody Harrelson), and the two forge an unlikely alliance, united by their loneliness in the face of arbitrary tragedy.

In writing Suncoast, Chinn says she channeled Greta Gerwig’s Ladybird, along with “early-aughts indie films” like Little Miss Sunshine, Juno, and Napoleon Dynamite, where “there’s so much sad stuff going on, and you’re laughing the whole time.”

“I wanted to write a movie that I wish I could have seen when I was that little. You feel like a freak. I don’t see the world as binary, and I used to think it was like a flaw,” says Chinn. “Grieving is so challenging. Losing someone is so painful. Don’t add guilt, and regret, and thinking you did it wrong on top of that.”

Below, Chinn takes TIME inside the story of Suncoast.   

TIME: Suncoast is a semi-autobiographical story. How much of the movie is from your own life?

Chinn: I sort of created this Cinderella character in Doris: she’s taking care of her brother, and her mom’s like, “Clean the house!” That wasn’t my experience. But my brother was sick for six years, and there were so many feelings, so many times I was taking care of him, pushing his wheelchair around the neighborhood, taking him to get a portrait taken at Sears and he’s blind and deaf but I’m telling him, “You have to sit here, we’re doing this for mom.” But we’re trying to fit it into an hour-and-40-minute movie, so everything’s more extreme. Christine is not my mother. They have a lot of differences. But there were so many times during those six years where I felt forgotten about, or guilty, or like I wasn’t doing it right—grieving right, taking care of him right. I wanted to express all of that.

One of the mainstays of the coming-of-age movie is the new friend group, and the group you created in “Suncoast” is sort of unique. They’re self-centered teenagers, but they have so much obvious love for Doris.

A surprising reaction I got from people reading the script was, “Oh, you never made the girls mean, I was expecting them to turn on her the whole time,” and then they would ask themselves, “Why was I expecting them to turn on her?”

I did have that genre expectation, I was like, “Oh, they’re popular girls and they wear little shirts and little shirts signify mean behavior.”

Yeah, it’s like, the smaller the shirt the meaner the girl! We’re so trained to think teenagers are like this. But why would someone be like, “Your brother’s dying? We’re not going to sit with you.” No one was ever mean to me in that way.

You’ve said you had Woody Harrelson as an ideal in your head while you were writing the character Paul—and Harrelson plays Paul in the film. Is his character based on anyone?

Anthony Tambakis is a screenwriter I met at 21. I was like, “I’ve never met a screenwriter! I’ve always wanted to write, I never went to school, I don’t know how to do it, but it’s in me!” and we started emailing. He was always this overwhelmingly kind presence, with no strings attached, no creep factor, and it really made me feel like there were good men in the world. I wanted to express that relationship, that there was this person that stepped in as a father figure and mentor to me, for no reason other than his innate kindness, and his desire to help. I wanted to pay homage to that.

The way you portray Suncoast, it’s clear how much care went into capturing the contradiction of this very strange environment, and the people who work there.

I went back to the hospice where my brother passed away before shooting this movie, and they had not updated, which was really helpful because I got to take all these photos. Our sound designer put in coughing sounds, and it brings you right back to that feeling: you are at the beginning of your life, you are young, everything is possible for you. And you’re in this environment where everyone’s leaving. In hospitals, babies are born, and people have broken legs. Things happen that don’t mean people are leaving this earth. But hospice, you’re just leaving. And I believe in hospice so much. The idea of dying with dignity and grace and in an environment that’s clean and safe, I believe in it so much. 

When I visited, this nurse showed me around. She was telling me about what COVID was like, and she started crying. This is a woman who sees death all day, who deals with the families and the people all day, and she still has the heart and ability to cry just speaking about it. I really wanted to pay homage to hospice. But at the same time, when you’re there as a person who’s going through it, you just want to burn it all to the ground. [Laura Linney’s character] Christine hates the nurses. In real life, my mother just adored these nurses. So I wanted to have both sides. 

I have heard stories of people and families literally yelling at each other, “You’re grieving wrong! You’re not doing it right!” And I get it, because I think we wish there was a rulebook that said, “When someone dies, you behave this way, and you fly to where they are, and you sit by their bedside—”

—And they die in an amount of time that is convenient for how long you can be there.

Right. Someone told me a story once—she was with her mother the whole time by the hospital bed, and then she went down to the cafeteria, and her mom died. And she came back with her snack, and she was like, “Oh, my God, oh, my God!”

“Oh, my God! I have Cheez-Its and no mom!”

Exactly! And now she forever lives with this feeling. But it’s okay. Laura Linney talked about this too, in terms of how Doris’s story unfolds in the film. Maybe it’s not exactly how Doris would have wanted it to go, but it’s still okay. There’s not a right or wrong way to do it. It was really important to me to show that, however it works out when you’re saying goodbye to your loved ones, it’s okay. You’re doing it right, whatever it is.

There’s no closure. I was with my brother for six years while he was sick, and I was with him in the room when he passed away. I thought I had such a handle on death. And then when he was taking his last breath, I started screaming, “No!” I was out of my body. As much as I was like, “No, I totally got it. I understand. I’ve had so much time,” and then the moment comes and you’re like, “Please don’t go.” 

I can imagine how hard it is to create characters who are going through that, especially when you imagine how people might respond. Did that make writing this script harder?

Absolutely. I’m gonna show the sides of myself that are being really selfish, really narcissistic, I’m making the wrong choice. But the surprising reaction is that everyone’s like, “Me too.” You could read Christine on the page and say, “Whoa, that’s not the right way to behave.” But audiences are all laughing because they’re relating. We all have the same thing in us that’s so beautiful and so ugly at the same time. Writing about that stuff for me is so freeing, even though it’s terrifying, because you have the fear of “people are gonna judge me.” But every time it has been the opposite, like, “That’s my friends. That’s my mom. That’s the way I was.”

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