Little Miss Sunshine
2006Director: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris
Cast: Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Steve Carell
he problem with gut reactions is that they don’t allow sufficient time to digest relevant information or weigh indecision accordingly. Our president supposedly makes gut decisions all the time and look where it landed him. I mention this because I recently viewed Little Miss Sunshine as part of an advanced screening where I made a rash judgment based on my own somewhat unfair expectations. I hastily wrote a moderately negative review, and would have expunged it from my mind had I not been strong-armed into giving it another chance by a friend. Needless to say, I had a change of heart, and although many of the qualms I felt during my initial viewing remain, this time around I caught more understated elements of its screenplay that heightened my appreciation for the material.
The film starts out especially strong, the opening moments displaying the writing at its most biting and observant; depicting a family on the brink of destruction. Headed by Richard (Greg Kinnear), whose career as a motivational speaker could use some outside motivation itself, the Hoover family feast nightly on fried chicken using paper plates and plastic utensils, barely able to conceal that their routine existence rests upon a trembling precipice. Their two children have grown distant—their daughter Olive perpetually locked in some eerie spell spawned by repeat viewings of past Miss America contests, goaded on to enter pageants of her own by her lewd, heroin-addicted grandfather (Alan Arkin); their son Dwayne, meanwhile, buries his nose in Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra while carrying out a vow of silence currently nine months running.
Their frigid little world gets shaken up somewhat with the arrival of their mother Sheryl’s (Toni Collette) suicidal brother Frank (Steve Carell), whose desperation would appear downright crestfallen if Carell weren’t so intrinsically funny. But the real journey begins when Olive discovers that due to a disqualified finalist caught with diet pills she now has a place in the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant in Redondo Beach, California. This spurs the Hoover family to pile into their rundown VW bus and make the 700-mile trek from Albuquerque, weathering a series of increasingly complicated hindrances along the way.
As I mentioned, despite my newfound appreciation for the film, I still retain a few minor reservations. For one, despite the fact that all the characters are terrifically written, they get swept up by a plot that isn’t terribly dynamic when you reflect upon it. At some point in the film, the narrative simply deviates from plausibility. When a body confiscated from a morgue winds up in the trunk of the VW bus, I cringed because it seemed out of sync with the motivations of the characters. Likewise, the over-the-top, unsettling beauty pageant at the end slashes at the film’s patiently established credibility, angling for cheap laughs. Moments such as these tend to adopt a zany comic artifice rather than focusing on the more penetrating and witty aspect of character development. Ultimately, when the time came to bestow the film with a definite tone, the filmmakers chose the saccharine-flavored route rather than exploring darker territory.
This contributes to the other flaw that holds the film back from greatness—namely its indecision concerning what it wants to be. It attempts both satire and road-trip comedy, each with its own set of rules and expectations. A road-trip movie requires the characters to begin at odds and slowly grow to understand one another, profiting from their time together. A satire benefits from broad, unchanging character types derided by the filmmakers from a distance. The film wants it both ways, resulting in a story that sets up characters embodied by broad comic attitudes—the overachieving, stubborn father; the outcast loner son—only to abandon this arrangement at the plot’s convenience. In effect, the characters that develop most convincingly are Frank and Sheryl since their personalities are established as the most believable. They are granted lenience to move beyond mere character types, warranting the audience’s sympathy.
Carell, in fact, is the real surprise here, playing a role we’ve come to expect from him while adding a twist. Formerly the world’s pre-eminent Proustian scholar, Frank took some wrong turns that led to his termination at the university; took a few more wrong turns that further led to the breakdown of his life, inevitably resulting in attempted suicide. Although the directors employ him primarily for comic effect, one detects the devastating tragedy blistering below the surface. Carell plays it impeccably, lending just enough comedy and grief to his portrayal of Frank. Hopefully he returns for more roles that allow him to demonstrate his surprising versatility as an actor.
What Little Miss Sunshine leaves us with is something of a mixed bag. Even if the narrative fails to produce much originality, the movie nonetheless features a number of hilarious set ups—many of which involve their perpetually deteriorating vehicle. Likewise, the characters are well written, while working much more effectively when relegated to individual performances. And the satire is insightful, if you ignore all the feel-good crap tacked on to the end. I will say that there are sure to be (and already have been) funnier, more well-written films this year, but—for better or worse—none so adorable as Little Miss Sunshine.
Little Miss Sunshine is playing in limited release.