A film review by Craig J. Koban
LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE
R, 100 mins.
2006, R, 100 mins.
Richard / Steve Carell:
Uncle Frank / Toni Collette:
Sheryl / Alan Arkin:
Grandpa / Abigail Breslin:
Dwayne Directed by Jonathan Dayton and
Valerie Faris /
Written by Michael Arndt
Greg Kinnear: Richard / Steve Carell: Uncle Frank / Toni Collette: Sheryl / Alan Arkin: Grandpa / Abigail Breslin: Oilive /
Paul Dana: Dwayne
Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris / Written by Michael Arndt
"Madness is rare in individuals - but in groups, parties,
nations, and ages it is the rule."
There are dysfunctional families, and then there are insanely dysfunctional families, much like the one portrayed in LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE. Sure, we have seen families on the silver screen with various forms of odd, personality quirks and faults, but the Hoover family takes top honors for being one of the most bizarre.
We have the father, who is an absolutely wretched motivational speaker that blindly thinks that he is poised for stardom. We have the determined mother that desperately yearns to make her troubled family live cohesively together. Then we have the teenage son that is in such an existentialist funk that he has vowed never to speak to anyone again. He has been successful at it for nine months, perhaps from his readings of Nietzsche. He hates everyone around him, including his family.
It gets even stranger. We also have the grandfather that spouts out moral platitudes with the f-bomb accentuating every other word. He has a razor sharp edge and a bit more than his fair share of cynicism. He was kicked out of his retirement home for sleeping with too many of the other residents. Perhaps he was also kicked out because of his nasty habits, like being a chronic heroin user. Then we get a kooky uncle that has been invited to stay with the family when he has fallen ill. He’s your typical family uncle. You know, one that was once the "Number One Proust scholar" in the world and was a successful professor until he fell in love with his younger, male grad student who did not love him back and subsequently went on to get involved with the “Number Two” Proust scholar" in the world. The Uncle, as a result, tried to commit suicide, but failed.
Oh, thrown into this eclectic mix is the very cute little daughter that has aspirations of being a young beauty contest winner. In a clan filled with unmitigated weirdoes, this girl just may be one of the sanest of the bunch.
Now, it would be easy to dismiss LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE as a contrived and formulaic family film. Yes, we have a colorful assortment of deranged personas that don’t seem to get along very well until the end where the find that their differences eventually breeds their acceptance of one another. Of course, they all grow to respect and love one another dearly during one long road trip where - just when you think they are going to tear each other apart - they band together in unison and discover the real meaning of “family.” On these superficial levels, LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE does not break new ground.
Yet, what makes the film a resounding success and ultimate crowd pleaser is in the way it finds that always-difficult happy medium between pathos and laughs. No other film thus far in 2006 has demonstrated this work’s keen introspection with its characters. The simpler approach would have been to play this film as a broad, one-dimensional farce. Surely, with the assortment of unusual people that populate the film, LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE could have degenerated into a mindless and soulless road picture.
However, the subtle brilliance of the film is that it displays a remarkable level of simultaneous scorn and empathy for its characters. It is to the filmmaker’s credit that they do not sugarcoat this creepy family for easier digestion. Instead, they allow them to be presented to us, warts and all, to the point where our own inherent unease with their personalities nourishes the comedy. Some say that we laugh at things because there are subtle layers of truth that is buried underneath. In LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE we see characters that overcome their sheer absurdity and become figures we can relate to. That’s the underlining strength of the film; it never panders down to us. Instead, it searches for humanity in its characters beyond their outward facades of irregularity.
More importantly, this film celebrates the all-American loser family and never compromises. LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE might be a surprise for some that are looking for an idiosyncratic family/road picture. There is not a hint of normalcy to the Hoovers. The emotional spectrum of the film is kind of amazing. It’s oftentimes played incredibly broad, but perhaps that’s the only way to drive home the film’s subtle satire and bleakness. LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE extrapolates uproarious laughs from the most seedy of subject matters (like suicide, drug abuse, irresponsible parenting, to name a few), but it’s the film’s bitterness with the material that makes it funny. Similar films, like the terrible RV, presented another dysfunctional family, but that film forgot that the key to great black comedy is a willingness to go for the emotional jugular. LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE has its fair share of sweet and tender moments, but it has teeth and it sinks them into the material and never lets go.
The film opens with a terrific montage where we meet all of the members of the Hoover clan: Richard, the dad (Greg Kinnear); Sheryl, the mom (Toni Collette); the grandfather (Alan Arkin); Dwayne, the teen son (Paul Dana); Uncle Frank (Steve Carell); and finally the “Little Miss Sunshine” candidate herself, Olive (Abigail Breslin). After these first initial glimpses the film then shifts into its single best scene where the entire family all sits down for a bountiful meal of take out fried chicken. Witless films would have painfully overwritten this scene as one of needless exposition, but this inspired supper moment in LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE effortlessly defines all of the characters for the rest of the film through their mutual exchanges.
We learn of Richard’s complete tunnel vision of the relative importance of his nine-step program to success – it’s his own motivational Bible, of sorts. We witness Sheryl trying to make amends for all of her family members by trying to make things agreeable for all. We see the son candidly reveal his thoughts down on note pads (remember, he has taken a vow of silence), but his sullen eyes are the windows to his bleak, alienated adolescent soul. Then we see Uncle Frank who has reached a point in his life where his failures are getting the best of him and his face reveals his unremitting apathy. Grandpa, of course, is quickly defined in the scene with his first comment - “Do we have to eat Goddamn chicken again!?”
As the dinner scene progresses the characters reveal more subtle layers to both each other and us. Of course, the naïve and innocent Olive is a beacon of hope and unyielding spunk, but even the sight of Frank’s bandages on his wrists takes her aback. She politely asks him what happened. Richard, playing the role of the ignorant and insensitive patriarch, tells her that Frank is a “sick man.” Sheryl, being a hip and progressive mother, gets miffed with her husband’s comments and tells Frank that he can tell her what really happened because the family lives in a vacuum of truth. Well, Frank reveals all of the details to young Olive – in one of the film’s many touching and honest moments. “I tried to kill myself because I was unhappy,” Frank tells her. When she asks why he responds, “I was unhappy because I fell in love with one of my grad students, but he did not love me back.” Olive is as shocked as any young girl would be. “You fell in love with a boy? That’s silly," she tells him. Grandpa harps in with his two cents by deadpanning, “There’s another word for it.”
After this wonderfully written dinner scene, the film segues into its next chapter. It seems that Olive has been accepted to participate in the exclusive Little Miss Sunshine, Under 10 Beauty Pageant all the way in Redondo Beach, California. Seeing that they live in Albuquerque, the prospect of a 700-mile cross-country trek seems daunting. Realizing that a plane trip is out of the financial question, Sheryl decides to drive Olive there in the family VW van. The problem is that she does not drive stick, so Richard begrudgingly decides to drive. That leaves grandpa, who decides to tag along to help Olive (he choreographed her pageant routine), Dwayne and Frank. Obviously, Sheryl does not want to leave Frank alone with her son that won’t speak, so she asks them both to come. Frank timidly agrees, but Dwayne is a bit tougher to coax. He finally agrees. He humorously writes down on his note pad “I will go…but I will not have any fun.”
It is here where the sharp and pointed comedy of errors turns into a family road picture. Yet, make no mistake about them, the Hoovers are definitely not the Griswalds. The long trip helps to embellish their characters even more. One enormously funny scene shows Grandpa revealing why it’s “okay” to use heroine (his philosophy is that, yes, you’d have to be nuts to do it when your young, but when you’re old, why the hell not?). He even offers up Dwayne some lifetime advice. “F—k as many women as possible. Never stick with one. If you wanna f—k more than one woman at a time, that’s okay too.”
The family hits a lot of hardships on their way to California, oftentimes with much hilarity. Frank accidentally runs into his ex-lover at a convenience store (he’s there buying porn magazines for Grandpa, who instructs Frank to buy “really dirty” mags for him and at least one “fag rag” for himself). Then, the hapless Richard tries to carve out a book deal over his cell phone while trying to drive the rust bucket that is his van. At one point the van's transmission get wrecked so – instead of forfeiting Olive getting to California – they proceed to drive the VW, but they need to push the vehicle in order to get it to pop into the higher gears. The van itself becomes an even larger cauldron of sidesplitting scenes; especially one where it’s horn will not stop intermittently going off. In a way, the van itself is an odd metaphor for the family. It’s rusty, damaged, and run down, but come hell or high water, it will overcome its deficiencies and make it to California.
Clearly, it could be said that LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE is predictable (you’d have to be blind not to see the family coming together in a unilateral show of support for Olive’s big finale at the beauty pageant). Yet, the film is able to sidestep it’s more clear-cut elements are instead becomes something more mature, off-kilter, and refreshingly original. It has a sort of gracefulness and poignancy buried underneath its inherent wackiness. There are moments where the film does have some superficial similarities to comedies like NATIONAL LAMPOON’S VACATION and – trust me – WEEKEND AT BERNIE'S. However, there are no cheap laughs in the film, nor is there any false dramatic beats. LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE reaches out for the truth behind how people and families live with each other and interact. Much like recent films (the horribly underrated GARDEN STATE, for instance), LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE uses irreverent comedy to tap into the souls of its characters. The laughs are riotous at the expense of people that are tortured.
The performances are as uniformly strong as any assemble work of recent memory. Kinnear, one of our most dependable of actors, creates a shallow desperation in Richard. Toni Collette, equally reliable, paints her mother figure as one that has the conviction to stand by her family, no matter what. Paul Dano creates a truly pessimistic teen (he says so much with his often stoic expressions and body language; since he does not speak, he has the most thankless job in the film). Alan Arkin gives one of the funniest performances this year with his nail-biting and wickedly foul-mouthed zingers. No grandfather has been as big of a potty mouth as he is in this film. Steve Carell, who can play broad comedy better than anyone, gives a brilliant performance of restrained and muted ambivalence. We laugh harder at him usually at his underplayed and expressionless energy. Finally, there’s Abigail Breslin, who has so much spirit, so much vitality, so much boundless optimism, and so much resiliency. She is the glue that holds the family together, and her never-ending adorableness made me smile in every scene that showed her bright, inquisitive eyes and those thick rimmed, oversized spectacles.
LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE made a huge splash earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival, and for good reason. It takes the standard conventions of some familiar genres (the dysfunctional family and the road trip picture) and infuses ingenuity into them to the point where the film becomes one of 2006’s most transcendent and gratifying surprises. With fantastic performances across the board, a sharp and intelligent screenplay that is cynical and bleak enough to go for broke, and laugh-out-loud sequences that generate comedy out of suffering, LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE deserves high kudos for being an ingenious fusion of a funny satire and a honest commentary on the flawed human condition. Very few entertainments are shrewd and daring enough to be hilarious and caustic, but LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE bravely and successfully marries sly and sarcastic humor with deep truth. Farcical comedies about flawed families have rarely been as open and honest as this one.