Movie Review: Little Miss Sunshine
Rating: R (language, some sex and drug content)
Length: 101 minutes
Release Date: August 18, 2006
Directed by: Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton
Stars: 4 out of 5
Imagine a movie so inventive and hilarious that a simple car horn could make you laugh until tears were threatening to fall from your eyes. The nuanced "Little Miss Sunshine" has such a scene, which is one of many that will keep you rolling throughout the film.
At the heart of the film is young Oliver Hoover (Abigail Breslin), who is an aspiring beauty queen. Her grandfather (Alan Arkin, in an Academy Award winning role) is a crusty old man who can be rather rude to everyone except Olive. He is so rude, in fact, that he just got kicked out of a nursing home (the illegal drugs he was taking didn't help) and now has to stay with Olive's family. They forge a formidable bond as he tries to help her with her dance routine for the next pageant she enters.
Olive's dad is Richard (Greg Kinnear), a motivational speaker who can't seem to motivate anyone to buy into his nine step plan for life success. Her mother is Sheryl (Toni Collette), the frazzled matriarch of the family who is desperately trying to hold everyone together. If her family was a sinking boat taking on gallons of water, Sheryl would desperately try to empty it with a thimble.
Brother Dwayne (Paul Dano) is all pasty skin, dark eye-obscuring bangs and attitude. He has taken a vow of silence until he gets accepted into fighter pilot school, which means he has not uttered a word in more than nine months. Dano manages to imbue Dwayne with all sorts of sentiment simply using little bobs of the head and his barely viewable eyes. It is a masterful performance in a film filled with them.
Speaking of masterful performances, Steve Carell turns one in as Frank, the brother of Sheryl who just got released from a mental hospital. Frank isn't crazy, but he nearly went crazy and tried to kill himself when his beefcake boyfriend dumped him for a fellow Proust scholar. His doctors have directed him to be under constant supervision until he is comfortable being back out in the world, which means Sheryl and family must take him in and keep an eye on him.
This motley crew sits around the dinner table, with Frank having to explain why he is wearing bandages around his wrists to Olive. The tension and family dynamics going on in this glorious scene show how deep the talent of screenwriter Michael Arndt goes. He meticulously crafted a way to develop the characters and make them interesting before introducing the road trip that will help them all grow. He won an Academy Award for this film and rightfully so. What makes it all more astounding is that "Little Miss Sunshine" marks his screenwriting debut. After seeing this film, you will expect nothing but good things from him in the future.
The movie shifts into high gear when Violet hears a message on the answering machine saying that she could compete in a pageant based on previous one she entered while visiting family in California. It is a 700-mile trek from New Mexico to California, and her family is really strapped for cash. Violet's screeching and enthusiasm are contagious, though, so the family packs into their VW van and heads to the Little Miss Sunshine pageant.
Along the way, plenty of family chaos and drama ensue, which is where Arndt's script really shines. Some films would take pain and turn it into a crude joke or mockery. "Little Miss Sunshine" shows that for every pain, there is a laugh that springs organically from it. Nothing is forced, the result of which is that every little development, no matter how tiny, is funny. A car breaking down might usually be mundane, but Arndt uses it as a metaphor for the family's near breakdown to great comic effect.
The film was co-directed by Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, who marked their directorial features debut with the film. Their previous work had been nothing but music videos. How they managed to turn their experience directing three minute music montages into this funny, dramatic masterpiece is unknown. Add in a fledgling screenwriter, and "Little Miss Sunshine" completely defies all the Hollywood rules. It is a hilarious drama with true heart on the screen and an iconoclastic lesson in long-odds filmmaking off the screen. Even without knowing this, you will be hard-pressed not to thoroughly enjoy this film, no matter how big the odds were against it working.