Little Miss Sunshine (United States, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

It takes a deft hand to fashion a feel-good movie with plenty of laughs and an upbeat ending out of a story that includes drug addiction, a suicide attempt, a death, Nietzsche, and Proust. Despite treading through a minefield of tone shifts, co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris and writer Michael Arndt reach the other side unscathed. Little Miss Sunshine is a small gem - or, considering the inclusion of hot star Steve Carell and the $10 million price tag paid by Fox Searchlight to acquire the distribution rights, perhaps not so "small." Smiles will be in evidence of the faces of audience members exiting a showing of this movie.

The husband-and-wife team of Dayton and Faris are making their feature debut after directing countless music videos and TV commercials. Thankfully, the pair takes a traditional approach in bringing first-time screenwriter Arndt's vision to the screen. We are not inundated by the sorts of camera tricks and flash edits that often accompany music video directors into multiplexes. Instead, Dayton and Faris give their characters opportunities to come to life, which is all one can ask in a situation like this. Additionally, they are apt at mixing comedy and drama. Little Miss Sunshine achieves a middle ground that many movies miss. The average viewer will laugh many times, but the underlying seriousness of the film's messages is not lost in the comedy.

The motley group at the center of Little Miss Sunshine might not win the top award at the Dysfunctional Family Film competition, but they would capture a runner's-up position. Richard (Greg Kinnear), the dad, is a motivational speaker whose nine-step plan proves to be his guiding principle in business and life. Sheryl (Toni Collette), the mom, is using every ounce of energy to keep her family from blowing apart. Dwayne (Paul Dano), the teenage son, is a fan of Nietzsche and has taken a vow of silence. Olive (Abigail Breslin), the daughter, is a beauty pageant addict and has recently placed second in a local under-10 contest. Uncle Frank (Steve Carell) is living with his sister's family because he recently attempted suicide after losing his lover, his job, and his reputation in a scandal. Then there's heroin-snorting grandpa (Alan Arkin), who's too controversial for a retirement community.

When the abdication of the beauty contest winner gives Olive the top spot, the family boards the old VW bus for a road trip to California, where she has a chance to compete in the Little Miss Sunshine pageant. The road trip is a mix of highs and lows, comedy and tragedy, and revelations. But nothing on the journey prepares the family for what they encounter in Redondo Beach when they come face to face with the travesty of little girls tarted up to look like glamour queens.

Over the course of 100 minutes, Little Miss Sunshine covers a lot of ground. The bulk of the film encapsulates the road trip. Similarities to the recent R.V. exist, but this production is fresher, funnier, and less artificial. There are some solid comedic moments: Grandpa's words of wisdom to his mute grandson, practical advice on starting a car with a broken clutch, an encounter with a highway patrolman, and a bit that would be at home in Weekend at Bernie's. The climactic segment, which ventures into near-horror movie territory with its depiction of seven-year old "beauty queens," is enough to make any sane viewer uncomfortable. Little Miss Sunshine condemns this abusive culture with a mixture of satire and pathos. The ending, despite devolving into an absurdity appropriate for the setting, is note-perfect.

Greg Kinnear and Toni Collette form the backbone of Little Miss Sunshine's skeleton, but their workmanlike performances are the least notable. Paul Dano does a lot with a role that robs him of dialogue, and Abigail Breslin (who made her debut in Signs) shows herself to be more capable than about 95% of the performers in her age group. She's talented, understands her part, and avoids the terminal cuteness that afflicts too many portrayals by young actors. Steve Carell surprises by playing it straight. Unlike Will Farrell, who was awkward in his non-comedic turn in Winter Passing, Carell's performance is unaffected. He gets some laughs, but not by doing anything outrageous or extreme. Finally, there's veteran Alan Arkin, who steals every scene he's in. Over the years, Arkin has honed his timing and means of delivery, and they serve him well here.

If properly marketed, Little Miss Sunshine could prove to be a sleeper hit. It's the kind of picture audiences enjoy because there's substance to go with the humor, and movie-goers will leave the theater feeling uplifted. Ultimately, despite flirting with some darker subjects, Little Miss Sunshine lives up to its name.

Little Miss Sunshine (United States, 2006)

Director: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris
Cast: Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Steve Carell, Abigail Breslin, Paul Dano, Alan Arkin
Screenplay: Michael Arndt
Cinematography: Tim Suhrstedt
Music: Mychael Danna
U.S. Distributor: Fox Searchlight
Run Time: 1:40
U.S. Release Date: 2006-08-04
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Drugs)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1