Little Miss Sunshine
December 20, 2006
This star-studded independent film (isn’t that an oxymoron?) was the toast of this year’s Sundance Film Festival with its distribution rights being bought for $10 million – one of the biggest deals ever made in the festival’s history. The film has gone on to top many critics’ Best Of lists for the year and has already lined up some impressive award nominations. But is it as good as all of the hype around it seems to suggest?
Little Miss Sunshine (2006) is about the deeply dysfunctional Hoover family. The father, Richard (Kinnear), is a struggling motivational speaker. Sheryl (Collette) is the long-suffering mother. Her brother Frank (Carell) is depressed and suicidal. Richard’s father (Arkin) is a foul-mouthed drug addict. Richard and Cheryl’s son, Dwayne (Dano) is a Nietzsche-reading teenager who has taken a vow of silence until he gets accepted by the Air Force to become a pilot. Finally, there is Olive (Breslin), their irrepressible daughter. In the middle of a contentious family dinner, Olive learns that she’s made it to the finals of the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant. So, kicking and screaming, the whole family piles into the VW mini-bus (because money is in short supply) with the hopes of making it to the contest that is being held in California in two days.
Initially, the family does nothing but bicker, especially the grandfather who complains about the lousy life he’s had. Richard, on the other hand, sees life in simple terms: people are either winners or losers and he espouses this belief at every opportunity. The irony is that he is in fact a loser but in deep denial. Dwayne and Frank get along famously as they’re both depressed and hate Richard. However, the road trip gives the family a chance to bond and hash out their grievances with each other and this occurs when they are forced to deal with problems, like the mini-bus’ mechanical shortcomings, that require them to work as a team. Much of the family is self-absorbed, mired in their own personal issues and problems. This road trip forces them to think of somebody else for a change.
This ensemble piece gives the uniformly excellent cast a chance to play off each other which they do remarkably well. Steve Carell turns in an excellent performance as he is cast against type as a despondent gay Proust scholar. His life is in shambles because he got fired from his job, run afoul of romantic entanglements and found out that he’s no longer the leading Proust expert in the country. Carell’s interaction with the other cast members is a large source of the film’s comedy, most notably his antagonistic relationship with Greg Kinnear’s character (you have to admire Kinnear’s willingness to play such a thoroughly unlikable character). Whenever Richard pontificates endlessly, Frank offers sarcastic retorts that are very funny. Carell delivers an excellent, internalized performance that gradually, as the film progresses, becomes more externalized as Frank begins to care about life again.
Olive is adorable (especially her engaging smile) and not in an obvious, mugging-for-the-camera way. Her character is the catalyst for the rest of the family being forced to confront their problems with themselves and with each other. She never comes across as too cute and her natural charm makes you root for her to succeed. The finale, where Olive does a provocative dance and is eventually joined on stage by her family to the song “Super Freak” by Rick James, has to be seen to be truly believed.
Little Miss Sunshine belongs to a tried and true genre: the family road movie of which National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983) is arguably the most famous example. Sunshine doesn’t deviate much from the formula but it doesn’t need to. The premise is merely an excuse to introduce all of these screwed-up people and play them off each other. In some respects, this film is in the same vein as Harold and Maude (1971) and Junebug (2005) in that it features several absurdly comic situations with offbeat characters. It also makes some well-observed points on the way little girls are objectified and paraded around like mini-adults in beauty pageants. These kids are forced to grow up way too soon as they take part in a highly competitive contest. Ultimately, Little Miss Sunshine is about family and how this particular one learns to trust and care for one another.
There is an audio commentary by directors Jonathan Dayton and his wife Valerie Faris. They point out the various locations used in the film and how some of them provided pleasant surprises. They praise Steve Carell’s physicality and the arc of his character. Dayton and Faris also talk about the casting process, starting with the pivotal role of Olive. They mention that work on this film started in 2001 but various delays kept pushing the film back. The filmmakers speak admiringly of each cast member and talk about what they brought to their roles.
Also included is an addition commentary with Dayton, Faris and screenwriter Michael Arndt. The writer says that he didn’t want the film to be very funny right from the start and instead begin as low key as possible, gradually building the comedy. He says that the film’s humour derives from the characters’ distinctive worldviews clashing with one another. He gets into specifics about the characters, for example with Dwayne he wanted him to be an unhappy teen but not the stereotype that listens to loud, angry music. Not surprisingly, this track emphasizes character, dialogue and story with the engaging Arndt speaking eloquently about his work.
There are “Alternate Endings” with optional commentary by Dayton and Faris. One ends with a family dinner but the upbeat tone was all wrong. Another one was too loose and laid back. A third is funny but feels like an outtake. It is easy to see why these were all rejected in favour of what is in the final film.