In the late months of 2019, there were rumblings of a virus with the potential to grow catastrophic. There had been instances like this previously with outbreaks of H1N1 in 2009 and Ebola from 2014-2016, but it always been contained and handled. By March 2020, just about every part of Earth had been touched by COVID-19, forced to shut down and quarantine in place. In the time between then and now, there’s been a shift in the way neighbors look at neighbors and families address families. There’s been a shift in the way that businesses operate and customers expect things to function. More than that, the notion that we’re all in this together has all but been eradicated through the notion of “getting back to normal.” This move is away from human compassion and toward capitalistic gains, the emphasis on what we can get from each other versus how we should care for one another. Over the course of four months in the early days of COVID-19, documentarian Sasha Levinson decided to take advantage of the opportunity of being locked at home with her then 9-year-old daughter, Sylviana Bellanca, to make her first feature-length documentary, Sylvie of the Sunshine State, as a means of both doing something she always wanted to do and as something that could occupy her time in the form of a project with her daughter. The resulting documentary is one that highlights one specific experience for three generations of a family trying to figure out how to navigate the pandemic, while also serving as a very universal look at parenting in this new world of virtual communication and uncertain everything.
Each of us had to make choices when global governments instituted their respective directives. For some, that meant carrying on as usual with whatever PPE they could find or requisition. For others, it meant getting creative with whatever resources were available. For Sasha, a single working mother, that meant trying to figure out how to manage her own needs as well as those of Sylviana (Sylvie), who needed to go to virtual school, continue music lessons, and attempt some form of socialization. Through the course of the documentary, Sasha alludes to Sylvie possessing a form of neurodivergency, though it’s never explicitly stated. The only thing the audience knows for sure, other than the struggle Sasha must manage of carrying for her daughter with growing uncertainty from every corner, is that Sylvie undergoes an episode which places her in the hospital for a period, instigating her father, Sasha’s ex Todd, to come down to Florida from New York. The scope of the documentary isn’t to go so specific as to identify Sylvie’s neurology (which it doesn’t) or to quantify Sylvie’s relationship with her dad, it’s the present, as intimately and unedited as possible; it’s the struggle of raising a child alone during a pandemic. Given my own experience in the early days of the pandemic (switching from in-person to virtual teaching while raising a then-four-year-old with my wife) and through my eldest’s experience in virtual kindergarten plus his own diagnoses of neurodivergency, Sasha’s goal of crafting a tale that felt accessible is not only achieved, there were moments that felt like looking at our own experience.
The bulk of the documentary is shot by Sasha herself, recording their everyday life in a cinéma vérité style, capturing the good and serine, as well as the rough and tumble moments of parenting. What remains is shot by Sylvie herself, very much the co-director, who reviews dailies and provides input into what she, Sylvie, would like the documentary to become. Some of the presented conflict comes in the form of how Sylvie doesn’t want to include any fighting of any kind, preferring happy moments and pleasant interactions to dominate the film. This could very much be because Sylvie herself is online and aware of various YouTubers, thereby thinking that all films should be enjoyable and devoid of realism. It could also be a trauma response created from the separation of her parents. This, of course, is theoretical, as Sasha and Todd get along on-camera, though there is a clear difference in personality and parenting styles that were surely tested with Sylvie’s neurodivergency. There is an example of this captured when Todd is visiting and Sylvie gets scarred by a fly, jerking her body while holding his laptop. His response is less than ideal, Sasha stating matter-of-factly what’s going on (a clear understanding of everyday life with Sylvie that Todd doesn’t have). My eldest lives with Sensory Processing Disorder, so being buzzed by a fly in the house is just as terrifying to him as a wasp doing so outside due to the unexpected nature of it. This, combined with the sound, would upset him, causing a similar knee-jerk response. If you’ve not dealt with it, my son’s (or Sylvie’s) response seems exaggerated and unnecessary, but it’s all connected to their internal wiring. This is just one example of how difficult parenting can be on the regular, but when you throw in a pandemic leading to growing isolation, reduced personal autonomy, and less help, everything slowly becomes a pressure-cooker.
What’s barely explored, but a particularly interesting aspect, is the affluence Sasha and Sylvia enjoy but doesn’t guarantee any kind of peace. During the early days of the pandemic, at least in my area, there didn’t appear to be too many people out and about in our neighborhood and, while there were some scarcity to deal with regarding tissues and toilet paper, we were fortune not to have to worry about food or financial support. In a single conversation, finances are discussed and, outside of this, there’s no real concern about meals or money. Rather, the focus is entirely on their relationship as mother-daughter and documentary co-directors. This means that Sasha doesn’t get any relief really to focus on her work as Sylvie needs moderate supervision in order to accomplish the not-so-simple task of virtual school. Even as a former community college instructor, the process of switching from in-person to virtual was an absolute nightmare and I can imagine many students felt the same. Was it ideal? Of course not, but at least we were struggling together. There was a strange equity in that, even if not everyone across the country had access the same support (in-person and financial) that Sylvie did. But what Sasha’s documentary does show, quite plainly in fact, is that it doesn’t matter what your situation was then or is now, parenting is not for the weak-willed and the more support one has, either from friends or family, the easier the burden of life becomes. We see this in a sweet moment as the neighborhood kids immortalize a pet, providing unsolicited support in a beautiful show of empathy. We also see it as Sasha struggles to spend time her mother, Mimi, and grandmother, Gigi. Her film highlights that community makes all the struggles easier to survive.
Upon the conclusion of Sunshine State, there’s a lovely tribute to the late Lynn Shelton, director, writer, actor, and, on the website, Sasha states that the loss of Shelton prompted her to push through her concerns and finally make a feature of her own. Her film tells a complete story, even if it begins in the middle of things, taking us through the trials and tribulations of parenting in a pandemic, offering a sense to any parents who watch this that they are not alone. In that, Sasha is extraordinarily successful. I think this because I saw some of my son in Sylvie, some of our struggles in their struggles, and many of our fears. Our circumstances may be different (I have a partner and I’m now a home school teacher), but the obstacles are quite interchangeable. As we continue, even two years later, to figure out what social interactions, what social customs, what education looks like amid COVID-19 and all the inconsistent messaging, Sylvie in the Sunshine State provides an affirmation, stating: “You are not alone. We are all struggling. Be kind to yourself.”
Currently on the festival circuit.
For more information, head to the official Sylvie of the Sunshine State website.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.