review: little miss sunshine
August 15, 2006
Warning: This review contains spoilers.
When the obscenity-spewing, heroin-snorting, yet compulsively likable grandfather unexpectedly meets an unfortunate end at about the halfway mark in directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ new film Little Miss Sunshine, it really sinks in: this is a comedy that isn’t kidding around. At least not completely. It is, however, remarkably effective at generating an authentic sense of warm, fuzzy closeness that the family, in the abstract, is often idealized as possessing.
As is so common in film, our conceptions of the characters reach their fullest expression only in the end. Patriarch Richard (Greg Kinnear) may not, after all, reach fame and fortune with his embarassingly impassioned “9-Step Program” for becoming a “winner” in all things worldly, but at least he has his wife (Toni Collette), who just might be getting over her nasty smoking habit, and button-cute daughter (Abigail Breslin), around whose beauty-queen aspirations the film’s loopy, digressive plot revolves.
Unfortunately for this improbably neurotic cast of characters, the pageant is in Redondo and their home lies in Albuquerque, several hundred miles away. Faster than you can say “what a wonderful excuse for family bonding through heartwarmingly ridiculous episodic encounters with perfect strangers!”, the clan is off on a multi-state adventure of…memorable proportions. Along for the ride for moral support–and, oh yes, because his recent suicide attempt necessitates constant supervision–is Steve Carell as studiously impassive yet startlingly vulnerable Uncle Frank, who, as he is so fond of saying, is “the nation’s foremost Proust scholar”, though perhaps not so much since he fell for a male graduate student and was summarily dismissed from his professorship. It’s miles away in terms of complexity–and, arguably, of quality–from Mr. Carell’s last role in The 40 Year Old Virgin.
All of this is revealed over a pointedly uncomfortable dinner conversation that also, as it happens, constitutes the audience’s introduction to son Dwayne (Paul Dano), Nietzsche devotee and brooding would-be fighter pilot, and Grandpa (Alan Arkin), sage curmudgeon and doting supporter of Abigail’s outsized ambitions. As commanders of this motley crew, parents Kinnear and Collette must rally the group’s spirits as delays and tensions, from an unaccomodating grief counselor to an unconscionably awkward run-in with the former object of Frank’s affections, mount. Their mode of transport, a failing VW bus whose quirks make it a character in itself, hardly makes things easier, though there’s certainly a peculiar kind of intimacy that comes from having to team up to push the vehicle up to launch speed (the clutch malfunctions partway through the trip).
The raucous finale at the sordidly exhibitionist Little Miss Sunshine pageant reeks of unfounded optimism, but its cathartic emotional intensity is oddly satisfying. We want to believe that everything will work out well, that the characters’ mundane existences will now be charged with a vigorous embrace of life’s whimsy and unpredictability and of the simple pleasures of time spent in the company of family. It may not be reasonable, but it’s easy not to care.
–D. S. W.