Little Miss Sunshine (2006)


(directors: Jonathan Dayton/Valerie Faris; screenwriter: Michael Arndt; cinematographer: Tim Suhrstedt; editor: Pamela Martin; music: Mychael Danna; cast: Greg Kinnear (Richard), Toni Collette (Sheryl), Steve Carell (Frank), Paul Dano (Dwayne), Abigail Breslin (Olive), Alan Arkin (Grandpa); Runtime: 100; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Marc Turtletaub/David T. Friendly/Peter Saraf, Albert Berger/Ron Yerxa; Fox Searchlight; 2006)
“… the perfect cast.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A dysfunctional family comedy road trip flick that wowed them at the Sundance Festival. This crowd-pleasing quirky indie is pleasantly co-directed by the former music video directorial husband-and-wife team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, in their feature film debut. It’s written by Michael Arndt, also in his debut. Furnished with the perfect cast, appropriately nuanced in direction (though not in the ballpark of a Preston Sturges) and working from a delightful script, the laughs keep coming and the poignancy falls bizarrely into place amidst the zany sitcom routines. The clever satire falls in love with its loser family, as it throws poison darts at America’s obsession with winning. In its beauty pageant moments it sadly reminds us of the strains we put our young females through, as one couldn’t help but be reminded of those almost kiddie porn videos of JonBenet Ramsey the TV keeps showing whenever that sensationalized murder case gets back into the news.

When 7-year-old pudgy, bespectacled Olive Hoover (Abigail Breslin) learns that through a disqualification she’s been chosen as a replacement to go to the Little Miss Sunshine child beauty pageant in Redondo Beach, California, family patriarch Richard Hoover (Greg Kinnear), a motivational speaker believing he will make a mint with his nine-step program for success that he hopes to implement into books and videos, and his beleaguered loyal suburban wife Sheryl (Toni Collette), reluctantly decide to take their six-member family in their unreliable old yellow VW van on the 700-mile trip to the California pageant. The others include: Dwayne (Paul Dano), Sheryl’s Nietzsche-obsessed high school senior son from her first marriage, who is on a vow of silence for the last nine months and won’t speak until he’s accepted into the Air Force Academy; Frank (Steve Carell), Sheryl’s gay brother and noted Proust scholar, who tried suicide when his male lover rejected him for another Proust scholar, and is granted permission to leave the hospital only as long as Sheryl accepts responsibility for looking after him; and, last but not least, there’s the elderly and cranky grandfather (Alan Arkin), Richard’s sex crazed father whose speech is rich in profanity, snorts heroin and was just bounced from a nursing home because of misbehaving.

The trip begins with the clutch going out, with no chance to get parts in time before they must reach the pageant or be disqualified; the van can only switch gears while on the move from a hill position, which means all the passengers have to push it and then jump into it while it’s moving. The film satisfies as it’s filled with well-executed visual gags, amusing one-liners, absurd comical interchanges among the misfit family members and ruefully focuses in on the anxious little girl, who’s mired in such a banal American Dream to prove her worth but in reality has no chance of winning against the JonBenet-like beauties she’s up against.

The lesson learned is that things can go right if a family unites and learns to communicate and trust each other (score one for family values!). The wacky family somehow unites behind Olive, as Grandpa takes charge in teaching her a sexy dance routine for the talent competition and dad tones down his obnoxious ‘winning is everything act.’ We are driven to realize it’s all about just getting there (even if in a broken-down VW bus) and not winning (the journey’s the trip, stupid!), as losing is translated to mean trying and looked upon as the best chance most of us have of learning something about ourselves and why we are fortunate to be alive to make the journey (this is seconded by no less an authority on losers than Proust). That these life lessons are unfortunately given as lecture points at the end of the punch lines, is what keeps the film going downhill (but, at least, it’s better presented for the most part than similar sitcoms, and again I mostly credit that to the overall fine performances by the entire cast).