Little Miss Sunshine
Quirk-filled comedy/drama takes dysfunctional clan on road to self-discovery
By Devin D. O’Leary
Little Miss Sunshine
Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
Cast: Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Steve Carell
The “road picture” is, in many ways, the kiddy pool of the American filmmaking industry. Countless neophyte filmmakers have tested the waters of Hollywood with the inexpensive, anything-goes formula of a road picture. Pick a character or two, put them in a car and have them drive across America encountering as many random pit stops as they can between point A and point B.
That isn't to say that road pictures are bad. Many are classics. From Hope and Crosby in The Road to Singapore to Sarandon and Davis in Thelma & Louise, road films have been a backbone of the movie industry. Now, in the proud tradition of Easy Rider, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Straight Story and ... um, Road Trip, comes Little Miss Sunshine, the debut feature from longtime music video directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris.
Made without studio help, the indie effort was snapped up for a pretty penny (a record $10.5 million, actually) at this year's Sundance Film Festival and rushed into theaters based largely on the strength of its fortuitous casting. Nestled amid an already impressive cast (Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Alan Arkin) is comedian Steve Carell. Having rocked last summer's box office with his sleeper hit The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Carell is suddenly a hot Hollywood property. Fans looking for more of Carell's wacky Virginal hijinks will, at least initially, be surprised by his turn here.
Carell plays Frank, a suicidal, gay college professor. (“The preeminent Proust scholar in America,” as he puts it.) Taken out of the hospital after a wrist-slashing episode fails to produce the desired results, Frank is trucked back to his sister's house in suburban Albuquerque. There, Frank finds himself surrounded by his none-too-helpful family, including unhappy housewife Sheryl (Collette), failed motivational speaker Richard (Kinnear), sullen, Nietzsche-reading teen Dwayne (Paul Dano), heroin-snorting, porn-addicted Grandpa (Arkin) and four-eyed, 7-year-old cutie Olive (Abigail Breslin).
Yes, it's your typical, hyper-dysfunctional indie movie family (giving Little Miss Sunshine two tried-and-true genres to fall back on). And when Olive wins a spot (by default) in the “Little Miss Sunshine” pageant in California, the entire warped clan is prevailed upon to pile into a claptrap Volkswagen van and motor their way across the American Southwest on a misguided journey of self-discovery.
Despite its overused setup, Little Miss Sunshine gets considerable mileage out of its professional cast and its low-key direction. The castmembers work like a finely tuned machine. Dano (L.I.E.) builds a memorable impression, even though his character has taken a vow of silence and communicates only in terse, handwritten notes. (“I hate everyone” being a favorite.) Carell, given relatively no opportunity to cut loose with the goofball antics, proves himself a credible dramatic actor. No doubt this will increase both his Hollywood stock-in-trade and the variety of his roles. However, the film's loudest kudos are reserved for tiny Abigail Breslin (who first came on the scene in Signs). Pretty much the entire film hinges on her character's innocence, vulnerability and sensitivity. Breslin's cherub-round face is able to convey an amazing variety of subtle emotions, making Olive the soulful heart of this nutty brood.
After the usual episodic roadside encounters (in which our family, predictably, learns it is their respective dysfunctions that unite them), Little Miss Sunshine arrives at the climactic kiddy beauty pageant. The expected swipes at prepubescent hoochie mamas are in full force, but the film's script maintains enough dignity and veracity to pull it off. Olive's family isn't composed of your typical overbearing stage parents. Instead, they're all a hopelessly naïve bunch so distracted by their own self-loathing that they actually have no clue about the exploitative nature of beauty pageants. (Little Olive with her chubby belly and pink hair scrunchie clearly does not belong in this parade of miniature Mary Kays.) It is the sincere cluelessness of Olive’s family that transforms what could have been an all-too-crude finale into a gleeful tribute to individuality.
Though it is a comedy, Little Miss Sunshine maintains a glum, indie-film vibe for much of its runtime. (Suicide, pornography, drugs, death and crushing disappointment being the film’s most common topics.) Toward the end, the dry black humor is dumped in favor of some over-the-top antics that are fun, but not terribly realistic. (One of which is even stolen from the road film classic National Lampoon’s Vacation.) Ultimately, Sunshine has a hard time maintaining its structural integrity. Is it a dysfunctional family drama? A madcap road movie? A vicious satire of the “win at all costs” nature of beauty pageants? Actually, it's all three. Even so, most audiences will happily ride the film's breakneck shifts in tone, enjoying the fine cast, clever punch lines and ultimately loving tribute to all-American losers.
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