Mark Reviews Movies


3 Stars (out of 4)

Directors: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris

Cast: Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Steve Carell, Abigail Breslin, Paul Dano, Alan Arkin

MPAA Rating:   (for language, some sex and drug content)

Running Time: 1:41

Release Date: 7/26/06 (limited)

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Review by Mark Dujsik

Offering nothing new to the table of portrayals of the dysfunctional family at work or road trip pictures, Little Miss Sunshine is still a twisted pleasure. A good number of the gags will feel quite familiar once they happen, and an even better number of the script's developments are predictable. What the film lacks in originality, it makes up for with a boisterous, oddball energy and a genuine, heartfelt sense of its characters. The film is the feature debut of the directing team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who have accumulated a noteworthy list of music videos and documentaries, but unlike an overwhelming majority of directors who make their way into feature film after working on short projects suitable for the likes of MTV, Dayton and Faris actually care about their characters over stylistic flash and pizzazz. Their jobs in this regard were probably made a bit easier with the cast at hand, all of whom manage to play the foibles that make their family unit dysfunctional in the first place and make us sympathize with them at the same time. It's this unified emphasis on character that makes the film work better than the recycled material deserves.

A prologue introduces us to the family in brief snippets of their lives. The young daughter Olive (Abigail Breslin) is watching a Miss America pageant on video. Patriarch Richard (Greg Kinnear) is a self-help speaker who is attempting to get his nine step program for not being a loser off the ground. Mother Sheryl (Toni Collette) is on her way to the hospital, trying to hide the fact she's smoking from her husband while on the phone, to pick up her brother Frank (Steve Carell), who has just attempted suicide. Older son Dwayne (Paul Dano) is busy reading Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra and has taken a vow of silence until he enters the Air Force. The grandfather (Alan Arkin) snorts heroin. After settling in for their typical dinner of takeout chicken and an uncomfortable discussion of the events leading up to Frank's suicide attempt, Richard finds time in between his commentary of Frank's losing tendencies to let Sheryl know there's a message for her and Olive on the machine. As it turns out, Olive is now a contestant in the Little Miss Sunshine pageant, and the entire family decides to try to make it from New Mexico to California in their VW van in two days so she can compete.

What follows is road trip full of the kind of unintentional self-revelation that can only occur when one is with those he or she has known his or her entire life or is connected by blood. Richard's own fear of (and unacknowledged sense of) failure is taken out on whomever shows the least sign of weakness. It's easy to dislike the guy after a scene at a roadside diner where he asks Olive if she really wants to order her meal a la mode, because the models she idolizes are thin and more than likely don't eat ice cream. The rest of the men in the family step in, eating it for her, and subtly undermine his advice. When Richard is confronted with a direct failure, though, we begin to understand where he's coming from and why he speaks to his family the way he does. The same holds true for the grandfather, who at first seems bigoted toward the fact that Frank is gay, but in a simple gesture of handing him money to procure certain magazines, he shows a level of acceptance that at first seemed unobtainable. Michael Arndt's first script is full of such understated moments in which volumes are spoken without being uttered.

There are much broader moments at play as well, but they work because of the strong, character-driven foundation. A highly unlikely coincidental meeting between Frank and the man who rejected him is forgivable because it eventually brings Frank to a place of understanding. An odd turn of events leads Dwayne down a similar road of despair, but again, it gives his silent character more depth and allows a connection to his uncle. There are more events that have nothing whatsoever to do with the characters, but are still quite funny because they fit in with the Murphy's Law certainty of extended family get-togethers. Why their van breaks down is simply to have them all push it and jump in before Richard really gets in gear, and why their horn breaks is simply to have the pathetic toot of a VW play under the film's final events. It's silly stuff, genuinely hilarious, but nothing compared to what the movie has in store for its climax. The Little Miss Sunshine pageant itself is the kind of sequence you wish were satire, but it has the unnerving ring of the reality of little girls made up to look like beauty queens. It's a disquieting scene which almost stops the film in its tracks, but that's until Olive gets her chance to shine in the talent competition.

The only thing I can give away about her act in good conscious is that I will never hear the song "Super Freak" again without thinking of that scene and giggling. If you think you have an idea of what it entails, you probably have no idea. That's the kind of feeling Little Miss Sunshine radiates and accomplishes throughout. Yes, lots of the script is recycled material, but under the charm of its characters, each moment seems to come only for them when they need it the least.

Copyright 2006 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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