Directed by: Jonathan Dayton/Valerie Faris
Written by: Michael Arndt
Starring: Abigail Breslin, Greg Kinnear, Paul Dano, Alan Arkin, Toni Collette, Steve Carell
Released: 2006 / Genre: Comedy-Drama / Country: USA
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Little Miss Sunshine is an apt title for such a rapturous ray of sunlit glee. The title card plays over a morose-looking Steve Carell, his face a picture of misery. The juxtaposition of optimistic words over his pessimistic outlook is filmmaker’s Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ little clue that the light in their story is discovered in the intricacies of human dysfunction and alienation. It is possible to have a wholly satisfying tale of hopefulness and happy-endings without any semblance of saccharine sentimentality. Little Miss Sunshine is proof positive that in the realities of life’s little challenges, failure is not a cause for misery but a step on the road to living. It may be clichéd to admit it, but the film is not about winning, it is about talking part.
Every so often a film will come out of the blue to astonish you. It won’t be the big blockbusters with their million-dollar marketing campaigns, teaser trailers released a year in advance, merchandising, theme songs, and media galas. An inherent fact of the studio’s most expensive material is its inability to creep up on you out of nowhere. That’s where the independent scene comes into its own with only a big Cannes buzz and few quietly spoken words between film fans breeding the anticipated commotion. Little Miss Sunshine is one of those movies. Small budget and innocent ideals, it boosts a fresh-faced outlook on suburban American family life with enough familiarity to be universally appealing. Michael Arndt’s script pitches the family-on-a-road-trip with an ensemble of various dysfunctions like The Simpsons parodying Planes, Trains and Automobiles. The real beauty is how all these functional flaws come together in a glorious trifle of humanness, our iniquities an honest assessment of the difficulties of success and succeeding, of happiness and being accepted. Grandpa’s dalliance with drugs in his old age, uncle’s suicide attempts, dad’s failing self-help scheme. That Dayton and Faris find amusement in these flaws is part of the film’s success. The directors are not laughing at the characters’ expense or glorifying their pent up misery, they are celebrating their wilfulness to avoid being pigeonholed by the conventions of society.
And convention is a trait of the film with mum Sheryl (played by Toni Collette) willing on seven year old daughter Olive (Abigail Breslin) in the most ugly of conventional competition, the Little Miss Sunshine pageant, a glorified exploitation of children where winning is based not on ability but on natural selection. There is a lovely scene early in the film where Greg Kinnear, playing Olive’s father, tells her she will get fat if she eats ice cream. The rest of the family then tuck into her chocolate scoops, telling her how delicious the ice cream tastes, prompting her to take back her dish and hungrily scoff the rest. Unwittingly, Kinnear’s Richard has become another pageant judge despite his contempt for the show. When he finally sees the error of his ways when the conventions of the pageant are playing out (the lashings of make-up and parental projection a Cosmopolitan IT girl mask to bad breath and pre-teen tantrums), he jumps on stage and joins his daughter. Their double act gyration, rejoicing the dancing routine of a nude stripper in a rundown joint where closed curtains mean added extras, is the ultra unconventional to the incorrigible conventions of pageantry exploitation.
It’s a wonderful sensibility of the film which we are immediately introduced to thanks to Alan Arkin’s straight-talking grandpa snorting coke in the bathroom. At the dinner table the Unusual Suspects are lined up – mum, strung out trying to cope with a wayward son and her suicidal brother; dad, self-absorbed in anticipation awaiting a big-money deal for his self-help guide; uncle, unwilling to let his failed relationship become a memory; son, rebelling against his overbearing parents with a vow of silence; grandpa, playing out the last vestiges of exuberance through drugs. The only character that appears to be untainted by some kind of heartache is the only character too young to know it exists. Little Olive, played superbly by the talented actress Abigail Breslin, is only interested in perfecting her dance routine and competing in the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant. That’s the bone of contention around the dinner table. Eventually deciding that if Olive is to compete they all have to hit the VW van and drive to California. The stage is then set for a physical and metaphorical journey of self-discovery.
Based on Michael Arndt’s lively script, half the battle bringing the quirkiness of his characters to the screen is in the casting. And that’s the defining light at the film’s heart. Alan Arkin stands out as the straight-talking OAP but if anything it is Steve Carell who comes to the fore in a wholly different role than his 40 year old virgin. It is a juggling act when you’ve got such idiosyncratic characters populating a story they all have equal share of. But the filmmakers do a worthy job, the road trip a perfect narrative to the individual plights of each of the family members. That’s part of the film’s charm – with three generations thrown together, there’s something in it for everyone.
Little Miss Sunshine is funny and endearing, it is the sort of movie you want on a rainy day to blow the blues away. With a heart of gold beating passionately at his sunlit centre, this is one film you’ll be returning to time and time again.
Review by Daniel Stephens
Top 10 Films of 2006
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