#3 Little Miss Sunshine

(2006, Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris)

“I’d like to dedicate this to my grandfather, who showed me these moves”

Little Miss Sunshine is the feature film debut of husband-and-wife music video director team Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris. It offers up a tale of an oddball family on a road trip to California. The purpose? To enter 7-year old daughter Olive into a beauty contest. Although she doesn’t match up to society’s traditional ideal of “beauty”, her parents are still encouraging her to follow her dream, and this is what makes up the backbone of this movie, although the story is not just hers, it’s the entire family’s as well.

As well as Olive, we have Dwayne (Paul Dano), a Nietzche-obsessed teen who’s taken a vow of silence, over-enthusiastic father Richard (Greg Kinnear) who’s currently seeking out a deal for his motivational speaking program, foul-mouthed grandfather Edwin (Alan Arkin), Uncle Frank (Steve Carrell), a gay Proust scholar who’s recently being released from hospital following a failed suicide attempt, and Sheryl (Toni Collette), the overworked mother trying to support them all.

The beauty of this movie is that every single moment feels very human and very realistic. Sure, at times some of the mishaps the encounter on the road can feel contrived, but the essence of the movie is in the characters, for they are what really drive the story here. The characters feel real, and as a result, the family feels like a real family. They’re not all loving and caring towards each other all the time, nor are they so dysfunctional they’re at each other’s throats. The fight, they argue, they get on each other’s nerves while crammed in a VW van together, but ultimately there is a feeling of love and warmth between this mismatched bunch. And that’s the key part of what makes this movie so fantastic.

There’s an old adage, “it’s not the destination but the journey that counts” and nowhere is that more appropriate than in this movie. The best parts of Little Miss Sunshine take place when the family are on the road. Anyone who’s ever been on a long car journey with their family can probably identify with the interactions they make. They’re some of the funniest and warmest moments of the movie, even when they’re at each other’s throats.

When they ultimately reach the beauty contest, however, the film does fall a little flat. There are still moments of great characterisation to hold everything together, but the scenes involving the beauty contest itself are a little bit of a let-down. The film portrays the child beauty contest as suitably awkward (they can be a disturbing prospect in reality, after all), but at times they seem to drag on. At the same time, while every other family member’s story is wrapped up in some way, Olive’s is not, despite allusions to a greater depth. It’s not clear where her story goes from here, which is disappointing considering how much the film revolves around her.

This doesn’t detract from the overall quality of the film though. It is still a great achievement, a simple low budget ensemble character piece that perfectly captures the nature of families, in both their ability to be the best support network you’ll ever find and the group of people who wind you up the most. The cast is fantastic too. Steve Carrell is especially fantastic playing against type as Frank, and Alan Arkin is hilarious as the grandfather, but these are merely the highlights of a brilliant ensemble. The whole cast just works well together, and there isn’t a single poor performance.

Little Miss Sunshine is unlikely to be a film that pleases everyone, but if you’re in the mood for a simple, human film with moments of warmth that is capable of making you laugh at times, then give it a chance.

Starring Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Steve Carrell, Paul Dano, Abigail Breslin & Alan Arkin
Written by Michael Arndt
Produced by Marc Turtletaub, David T. Friendly, Peter Saraf and Albert Berger & Ron Yerxa
Music by Mychael Danna & Devotchka
Cinematography by Tim Suhrstedt
Edited by Spot Welders & Pamela Martin

Favourite Scene: Alan Arkin gives his grandson relationship advice, and tells him not to take drugs until he’s old, when he’d be “crazy not to”
The Scene That Bugged Me: Big cheese in the motivational speaking world Stan Grossman fails to strike a deal for Richard, so Richard goes to confront him about it. While the dialogue and acting are just fine, the setting bugs me. Their fairly heated argument is next to a hotel pool. The pool appears semi-prominently in many shots. No one gets pushed in! It drives me insane!

Watch it if: You’ve ever been on a long car journey with your family and need catharsis
Avoid if: You’re expecting Steve Carrell to be anything like Brick in Anchorman. This time he does know what they’re yelling about.

Originally posted on Blogspot Thursday 13 October 2011

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Posted on March 11, 2012, in 2000s, Comedy, Drama and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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