How do you live while your brother is dying? 'Suncoast' is a teen take on hospice
A new film streaming on Hulu considers a subject that's sometimes in the news, but not often in entertainment: hospice end-of-life care. Suncoastis writer-director Laura Chinn's fictional account of her life in the early 2000s as a Florida teen with a severely ill older brother.
Chinn's brother had brain cancer – by the end he was unable to see, hear, or walk. He was "losing his ability to just mentally process any kind of conversation," she recalls, "so I knew his body was ready to go."
Chinn helped her mother care for him for years, and at the end of his life, they moved him into a hospice center. It turned out to be the same place that a woman named Terri Schiavo was on life support for 15 years.
"Her husband wanted to take her off, and her parents wanted to keep her on," Chinn says. "And there was this big nationwide debate about it. And my mother and I were bringing my brother to this facility where there [were] protesters and dozens of news vans and you know, just a lot of chaos."
Schiavo's case sparked national debates over end-of-life decisions. Members of Congress and even President George W. Bush weighed in.
"It's just a very unique coincidence that this moment in my life was coinciding with this very big national moment," Chinn says, "And I knew I always wanted to talk about it."
Confronting death as a teenager
Chinn was reminiscing about all this just with NPR, just after Suncoast premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. As an actor, Chinn has appeared on Grey's Anatomy, she's also written for television and created the series Florida Girls. But for her first feature film she chose to write about what she knows.
For Suncoast, which is by turns funny and sad, Chinn wrote a fictional version of her mother, played by Laura Linney. She's desperate to provide the best care for her son, and focuses more on him than on her daughter.
Chinn also wrote a fictional version of herself, a teen named Doris.
"[Doris is] shy and she's introverted and she's going through some incredibly challenging things that the people around her in her age don't understand and can't really sympathize with in a way that she is desperately craving," says 19-year-old actor Nico Parker, who plays Doris. "She's trying to engage in quote, unquote, 'normal' teenage experiences to escape the tragedy that's kind of looming around her."
Parker, the daughter of actor Thandiwe Newton, spoke to NPR from Belfast, where she's at work on a live-action version of How to Train Your Dragon. For her work in Suncoast, she received the Sundance breakout performance award.
In the film, Doris is befriended by an activist who lost his own wife and wants to keep Schiavo on life support. Chinn says she wrote that character, Paul, with Woody Harrelson in mind, and was thrilled he said yes to the role.
She says she wanted audiences to see him as "undeniably loveable, so we could see him as a human being, regardless of whether or not we agree with him."
Death as a sacred experience
Chinn says her own experience taught her that death could be a beautiful letting go.
I was in the room when my brother took his last breath. And what I marveled at was that it wasn't a negative experience. It was an awe-filled experience.
"I was in the room when my brother took his last breath. And what I marveled at was that it wasn't a negative experience. It was an awe-filled experience. It was a sacred, holy experience."
At the same time, Chinn says she can sympathize with those, like Schiavo's parents and their supporters, who hold on tightly to life.
"Once my brother died, I had a reaction of, wait, don't leave," she says. "So what I really wanted people to take away from the movie was that we're not all going to process death the same way. We're not all going to grieve the same way. Some of us channel it through anger. Some of us totally disassociate and feel nothing, and all of it is where you're at."
Renée Stoeckle, a spokesperson for the real-life Suncoast Hospice, was in the audience at the Sundance premiere. During the question and answer presentation after the movie, she walked to the front of the theater to thank Chinn for portraying the work of hospice nurses and grief counselors in a compassionate way.
"We feel so honored to be able to journey with people at the end of life. It truly is a privilege to get to have that sacred time," she told NPR , adding that years after the Schiavo case, hospice care remains largely misunderstood.
Stoeckle said she hopes audiences are inspired by Chinn's film to discuss end-of-life decisions with their families, and write directives that will honor their wishes when they die.
"Truly what she has done is the most courageously impactful thing that's happened to the hospice movement in 20 years," Stoeckle said of Chinn. "And we're so excited for the way this is going to ignite conversations going forward."
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