Directed by: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris
Starring: Greg Kinnear, Steve Carrell, Toni Collette, Paul Dano, Abigail Breslin, Alan Arkin
Great grief! A highly-touted, highly-hyped independent film that actually deserves all the praise and the push? Do such things exist? Little Miss Sunshine proves that they do! Whether or not that's one of the signs of the apocalypse, I don't know. It certainly could be, but regardless, this isn't one of those mystifyingly praised indies that we get force-fed each and every year as something wonderful and daring that when you see it, leaves you scratching your head in a state of major perplexicacity and a feeling of extreme "Did I miss something?"
Little Miss Sunshine -- from first-time feature directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris and first-time screenwriter Michael Arndt -- is a completely accessible, hysterically funny, thoroughly delightful and incredibly human film on every level. Now, before that either sends you in the opposite direction out of fear of a saccharine overdose, or running to the film in search of one, let's make it clear that this is also a very edgy, very R-rated work for adults who are not easily offended. In the final analysis, it may be a "feel-good" movie, but it's a feel-good movie with teeth and a somewhat bitter core -- and it's one that arrives at that end in decidedly unorthodox ways.
In essence, it combines the dysfunctional family comedy with the road-trip movie. That may sound like the execrable recent film R.V., but nothing could be further from the truth. It all lies in the characters and the development of those characters during the course of the film. The film takes a look at what can only be described as a more-than-usual dysfunctional family.
The paterfamilias, Richard (Greg Kinnear), is a brilliant parody of the standard sitcom dad (Kinnear looks the part) -- a barely functioning wage-earner with a loopy and unoriginal "nine steps to success" lecture he gives to small, unenthused classes. He keeps going on the belief that his concept will become a best-selling book. The mother, Sheryl (Toni Collette), barely holds things together and, as the film opens, finds herself having to deal with her gay brother Frank (Steve Carrell), the self-proclaimed "number-one Proust scholar in the world," who is released into her care after a failed suicide bid. (The litany of reasons for this attempt -- each sounding pretty good in itself -- is downright astonishing.)
Frank can't be left alone and is given over to the teenage son, Dwayne, who has taken a vow of silence until he gets into the Air Force Academy out of deference to his hero, Nietzsche. (Who else would you bunk a Proust scholar with?) Also included in the mix is Grandpa (Alan Arkin), an acid-tongued grouch who was bounced out of a retirement home for snorting heroin. Grandpa can barely tolerate his family -- except for granddaughter Olive (Abigail Breslin, Raising Helen). Olive seems to be the most normal one of the bunch -- to the degree that a cute, but ungainly, 7-year-old who practices the proper facial expression to use when being crowned Miss America can be construed as normal.
The plot proper kicks in when Olive miraculously gets a chance to compete for the title of Little Miss Sunshine in Redondo Beach, Cali. With the kind of judgment only a group this screwed-up could evidence, they all end up heading to the competition in a bright yellow 1970s VW bus. What happens from there is at once predictable and invariably surprising. That's to say that you more or less know where it's going, but how it gets there is anything but standard. And it all works -- from the satire of the creepy world of prepubescent beauty contests to the bitter commentary on the myriad ways in which we delude ourselves about our lives in order to be able to accept our fates.
What is perhaps most astonishing is that the film itself never seems bitter. Maybe that's because the characters ultimately aren't -- even though by any normal definition, they're all losers -- and maybe that's why the film leaves a sense of bittersweet uplift rather than despair. Rated R for language, some sex and drug content.
-- reviewed by Ken Hanke