In a small beachfront town in Florida, rival developers are vying to buy up all the property from those who have lived there for years. Returning home for the first time since she was fifteen is infomercial actress Desiree (Angela Bassett), who is hoping to make peace with her stern mother, Eunice (Mary Alice). As the movie opens, Eunice's late nephew's son Terrell (Alexander Lewis) is setting fire to a float scheduled for use on Buccaneer Day, an attempt at creating a tradition-based local holiday by chamber of commerce booster Francine (Mary Steenburgen). Francine is married to Earl (Gordon Clapp), a compulsive gambler who occasionally ineptly attempts suicide and is in league with strategy-minded developer Lester (Miguel Ferrer), who uses terms like beachhead and hostile natives.
On the other side is Jack (Timothy Hutton), a landscaper who likes to keep certain trees and landmarks intact to make people feel as though they're in nature. Jack and Lester are competing for land occupied by a motel-restaurant combo run by once-aspiring actress Marly Temple (Edie Falco, Oscar-worthy in the best female performance of the year so far). Marly's dad (Ralph Waite) is aggressively opposed to selling.
The past -- the nation's, the town's, the individual characters' -- is part of the film's larger theme. One older black man is nostalgic for segregation, noting that back then, some black people actually owned a few of the local businesses because no white men would set up shop in their area. Francine is busy trying to create a tradition out of the state's immigrant history but is stymied by the unfortunate truths of historical genocide and slavery. Then of course there's the whole past-versus-future dynamic of "redevelopment."
Lest this all sound too much like civics class, rest assured there's plenty of dry humor. One character is introduced out of the blue in extreme close-up, and as he rambles about what things were like in his day, the camera slowly pulls back to reveal a sly joke so obvious that you won't expect it. A laconic alligator wrangler seems cribbed from the documentary Home Movie. There's even a possible nod to Quentin Tarantino when Sayles throws in a conversation about an old TV show that's as hilarious as it is pointed. Sayles seems almost as amused by contemporary tackiness as he is righteously appalled by some of its effects, and that fine line gives the movie's final joke its punch.