On the surface “Little Miss Sunshine” seems like nothing special, but it is a film where mere plot description cannot do it justice. Recent DVD ads have made the film look like a madcap road movie and a parody of beauty contests, but while it features these elements, the film runs deeper.
In “Little Miss Sunshine” a family hits the road in a broken down VW bus to get their 7-year-old daughter, Olive (Abigail Breslin, “Signs”) to a beauty competition. Olive is a rather plain looking girl, but has been trained by her grandpa (Alan Arkin) with a special routine.
The film mines its humor from reality and each escalating problem, even as they become increasingly absurd, is accepted because of that sense of reality. Take the bus itself, which when the clutch is blown has to be pushed to get going, a gag that never loses its laugh and eventually becomes a point of triumphant. Other things happen to the bus that get big laughs that shouldn’t be spoiled.
Although the film is at times laugh out loud funny, particularly when you get to see the dance routine Grandpa has taught Olive, often the laughs have a sting. The movie creates family dynamics that feel true, sometimes painfully so. This is the case in an extended dinner scene early in the film.
The scene captures the tensions of the family dinner, something that rarely brings people together as much as we’d like it to. There is awkwardness and fighting that cuts close to home. The scene is also funny and in essence captures the tone of the rest of the film.
Some cynics will want to dismiss the family’s quirks as unrealistic exaggerations, but everyone has family issues that when explained to others seem ridiculous. “Little Miss Sunshine” doesn’t pull back from that fact.
That means we have father Richard (Greg Kinnear, “As Good as it Gets,” “The Matador”) forever selling his motivational success program to whoever will listen, son Dwayne (Paul Dano), taking a vow of silence until he can go to flight school, Uncle Frank (Steve Carell), who attempted suicide after being dumped by one of his male students and Grandpa is a foul mouthed, horny heroin addict. The only relatively normal family member is the mother Sheryl (Toni Collette, “The Sixth Sense,” “About a Boy”).
Even if the characters are a bit idiosyncratic they feel authentic. There have been plenty of films about families with quirky family members, but the difference is “Little Miss Sunshine” doesn’t laugh at its characters and instead creates empathy for them.
Everyone in the cast is excellent, but for most people Carell, an alum of “The Daily Show” and the star of the U.S. version of “The Office” is going to be the big surprise.
Known for silly antics in movies like “Anchorman” and “The 40 Year Old Virgin,” Carell gives a quiet, nuanced performance in which the hurt is always buried just below the surface. Even though the character is gay, Carell never plays the stereotype or goes for camp.
Carell’s Frank and Dano’s Dwayne form a quick bond and their dynamic is one that doesn’t feel like a mere plot device. Towards the end of the film they share a conversation about life that has a lot of truth. It is a scene, like most of the movie, which walks the fine line of comedy and tragedy.
Profane grandparents have been getting laughs for a long time, but Arkin instills his with a weariness. He isn’t mean, in fact he’s quite sweet, he’s just also very crass. Grandpa gives a sex pep talk to Dwayne that is hilariously vulgar. He’s old and therefore believes he is entitled to say and do what he wants. The character never seems like a cheap laugh and is oddly lovable.
Kinnear has perhaps the most difficult role as Richard, who is constantly giving speeches about winners and losers. Richard is overbearing and at times so infuriating you want to smack him especially when he tells Olive that if she eats ice cream she’ll get fat and fat girls aren’t winners.
Yet, Kinnear allows the character more dimensions than just that of an asshole. He needs to believe in his motivational system because he’s just as flawed and insecure as the rest of his family and the system is his crutch.
Richard redeems himself in the end and there is a sense that he’s changed, but Kinnear does it through facial expressions and gestures not words. Michael Arndt script thankfully doesn’t give any big speeches where we are told Richard has changed. The film trusts us to see it on our own.
Collette has the least showy role as a mother just trying to be there for her family, but it isn’t a performance that should be ignored. Collette’s Sheryl is attempting to be the stable one that holds together a fractured family. Sheryl has a few moments of emotional snaps, but for the most part keeps herself in check. Collette subtly shows the weight of staying strong for her family on her face and in her body.
“Little Miss Sunshine” looks at what the true meaning of winning, success and normal is and concludes that what is most important is to stay true to yourself. That makes the movie sound trite, where it is genuine and heartfelt. Writer Arndt and directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris never slip into over sentimentality or preachiness.
The story’s arch may not be fresh, but how it is told, without pretense, irony and with honesty and compassion is what lifts the film above formula into something special.
This is a movie where all the elements come together perfectly. The score, which heavily features the music of the band Devotcka is as beautiful and offbeat as the film itself and a perfect compliment to it. The editing and cinematography isn't flashy and allows for shots that are well composed and dynamic. It is the sort of movie that will make you laugh and cry, maybe even at the same time.