Little Miss Sunshine

Review by Adam Blair

Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
Screenplay by Michael Arndt
With Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Steve Carell, Abigail Breslin, Paul Dano and Alan Arkin
Rated R; 101 minutes

No doubt it’s simplistic to describe a film like Little Miss Sunshine as a “Sundance-style” comedy: the range of the festival’s offerings is actually quite wide, and the best of its films exhibit those traits of originality that give at least some truth to the “independent” label.

But frequent filmgoers probably know what I mean by the phrase: a “Sundance comedy” is usually a comedy/drama featuring a dysfunctional family or group of some kind, comprised of oddballs, dreamers and underachievers, who are thrown together by circumstances that run the gamut from contrived to compelling. There are almost always elements of satire about America and Americans, ranging from potshots at easy targets to sharp criticisms of who we are and how we live. The cast consists of mainstream actors looking for a challenge and some indie cred, as well as “indie faves” and talented up-and-comers. Recent examples that spring to mind are Transamerica, The Station Agent, Garden State, Pieces of April, even The Upside of Anger.

(Of course, substitute “Russian” for “American” in the above description and you have a summary of Chekhov’s plays, and no one ever complains that he’s always writing about the same people — well, almost no one.)

But I don’t mean to damn Little Miss Sunshine with faint praise by saying it exemplifies Sundance comedy. It’s certainly one of the funniest and most enjoyable examples of the genre, directed by the husband-and-wife team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris with such a light touch that it’s easy to forgive its contrivances and the sitcom elements of its screenplay by Michael Arndt. It also has a wow of a finish — there’s no other way to describe it — that pays off the movie’s satirical themes and unites its family unit in a satisfying, surprising way. That is a compliment, especially when so many movies either stretch on far too long or seem to simply stop, rather than conclude.

Sunshine also benefits from an extremely strong cast. Greg Kinnear and Toni Collette have played variants of their characters before (he’s a power-of-positive-thinking motivational speaker who hates “losers,” she’s a loving but hapless mom rapidly proceeding to her wit’s end), but miraculously they bring fresh angles to familiar attitudes.

Steve Carell (“The Office,” The 40 Year Old Virgin) successfully plays against whatever his type is as Collette’s brother, a suicidal gay Proust scholar who is surprised to find himself perhaps the least wacky member of this family. Alan Arkin as a foul-mouthed, heroin-sniffing grandpa is a delight — he should hook up with Estelle Getty’s Sophia from “The Golden Girls,” since they’ve both been thrown out of their nursing homes.

Paul Dano as Dwayne, a Nietzsche-reading teenager who has taken a vow of silence (he writes pithy phrases such as “I hate everybody” on a notepad to communicate) is excellent, and Abigail Breslin as 8-year-old Olive — who longs to be crowned the Little Miss Sunshine of the title — is fantastic. She captures a real little girl’s excitement, fears, innocence and emotional directness, and is adorable without ever being cute or cutesy.

This motley crew doesn’t look like they belong to the same family (Dwayne and Olive are half-siblings, he the product of Collette’s first marriage), but their dissimilarity turns out to be the point. No matter how crazy and unsatisfying your family may be, they are still your family. There are times during Little Miss Sunshine when this TV-style lesson is hammered home too heavily — but there are other times when the meaning of “family” is revealed to be simultaneously a blessing and a curse, as it often is.

The “wow” finish I mentioned above is one of those times. After hilarious trials and tribulations getting Olive from the family’s home in Albuquerque to the promised land of Redondo Beach, Calif. in time for the Little Miss Sunshine pageant, we see the other pre-teen girls in all their heavily made up, hairsprayed, tanned and toned glory. These contestants look less like little girls than like shrunken adults made up for a Mafia wedding, or like glazed dolls fixed in a cartoon image of grown-up sexuality.

The beautiful editing (by Pamela Martin) of the entire pageant sequence contrasts Olive — in her plain red swimsuit with the silver sequins accentuating her little bit of a kid belly — with these walking mannequins yodeling and belting out their heartfelt anthems “American Idol”-style.

I had thought beauty pageants as a satirical device revealing the emptiness of American aspirations had been exhausted as long ago as Michael Ritchie’s 1975 Smile. Even down-to-earth Sandra Bullock had been co-opted into admiring pageants in the farcical Miss Congeniality (2000). But Little Miss Sunshine— and the recent pop-up of JonBenet Ramsay interest when a pathetic attention-seeker claimed to be involved in her death — shows there’s juice in the pageant-as-America trope yet. When Olive displays actual sexuality in her talent portion dance to the song “Super Freak”, it shows up the other contestants’ titillating/disturbing caricatures of sexuality, and the parents and pageant machinery that supports them, as the true freaks. And when Olive’s family joins her on stage, this collection of misfits becomes a family in the best sense of the word.

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