Little Miss Sunshine (2006)

19 Mar

26suns.2.600

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Little Miss Sunshine” answers the question, “Is it possible to create something great with elements of a formula road movie?” The answer for this movie is yes. “Little Miss Sunshine” could be described as a road movie because a dysfunctional family is forced to travel halfway across the country, but what makes it very original, compelling, and funny is that this movie is also a character study. These characters within this family are well-developed and are unique individuals. They give “Little Miss Sunshine” its strength.

These people are the Hoovers. To call them dysfunctional is an understatement. The man of the house is Richard (Greg Kinnear), an overconfident, winning-obsessed life-lessons coach who can be unbearable to live with. His wife is Sheryl (Toni Collette), a completely honest housewife who tries to keep her family from falling apart. Sheryl’s brother is Frank (Steve Carell), a suicidal, gay Proust graduate. Richard and Sheryl’s children are seven-year-old Olive (Abigail Breslin), a glasses-wearing girl a little on the plump side who is determined to win a beauty contest someday, and teenager Dwayne (Paul Dano), an oddball who reads Nietzsche and has taken a vow of silence. That leaves Grandpa (Alan Arkin), a heroin-snorting wise guy.

These people are so original and so much fun to watch. They deliver the strengths to this story, which is interesting and funny because of the more appropriate reason—its script is funny. The writing here is Oscar-worthy. It’s rich, alive, funny, and touching. All of these elements of the writing are put to the screen to perfection by directors Valerie Davis and Jonathan Dayton, and by the actors, who know these characters by heart and don’t seem like they’re reading lines at all. I loved watching these people act and listening to them speak.

For example, there’s a dinner scene in the beginning of the film, in which all six family members are eating chicken at the dinner table. Here we get to know who these characters are, without annoying exposition. Too many introductions to characters just read lines that describe to the audience who they are at random. But in this dinner scene, they made cute, little Olive the questioning little girl who causes Frank to explain his reason for committing suicide. He explains it as calmly as possible.

But soon, it’s time to hit the road. Olive is in a top spot in a little girls’ beauty pageant and has a chance to compete in Little Miss Sunshine. They drive an old, yellow VW bus to California, where the contest is being held. But it doesn’t seem like the bus will survive this trip. Its clutch is shot so they have to run out and push it to start it. That’s one of many road trip problems this family goes through—there is also comedy, tragedy, and revelations, all of which written very well. But nothing could prepare them for when they finally make it to Little Miss Sunshine. I will not give away the outcome except to say that it comes totally unexpected and will cause discomfort for some people but big laughs for most.

And let’s be honest–these types of pageants are disturbing, disturbing, disturbing! And “Little Miss Sunshine” thankfully knows that enough to make audience members cringe at certain moments. But at least the movie delivers a solid punchline.

The story is somewhat similar to a lesser family road movie released earlier in the same year (2006), “R.V.” This one—“Little Miss Sunshine”—has more heart and more humor, as well as a lack of cliché. In “R.V.,” you knew the R.V. was going to be dumped in a lake. In “Little Miss Sunshine,” you may think you know what will happen when Richard confronts a man who ripped him off and they have an argument near a swimming pool. If you’ve seen as many movies as I have, you would think that Richard would throw the man in the pool…but he didn’t! Another great bit is when Dwayne writes in his notepad to explain to Frank that he hates everyone. Frank asks about his family, and that forces Dwayne to underline the word “Everyone.” There are many other great bits in this movie and a few great scenes as well, like the dinner scene. I love the scene in which Grandpa gives some vulgar advice to young Dwayne, every scene in which the family has to get out and start the bus, an encounter with a highway patrolman, and other scenes as well-written and acted as those.

The acting is top-notch. Greg Kinnear is well-cast in a role that basically requires him to be a pompous, winning-obsessed man. Toni Collette is great as the pro-honest mother. Paul Dano does everything he can with a performance that requires hardly any dialogue—his facial expressions say everything about the character. Abigail Breslin is an absolute delight as Olive. She’s very talented and understands her part very well. And she doesn’t go for the deadly cuteness that many child stars fall into. Alan Arkin steals all of his scenes as Grandpa. But the biggest surprise here is Steve Carell, who plays it straight in this role. Carell is wonderful as this strange person. His line-delivery and facial expressions are unique—sometimes they’re funny and other times, they make us care for him. This is a career highlight for Steve Carell.

“Little Miss Sunshine” is a delightful movie—funny, charming, and alive. With its clever script and truly original characters who are well-acted by the actors, “Little Miss Sunshine” is the movie that “R.V.” wanted to be.

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