Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Movie List: Little Miss Sunshine (2006)

Film: Little Miss Sunshine
Directed by: Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris
Oscar Nominations: 4 (Best Picture; Best Supporting Actor, Alan Arkin*; Best Supporting Actress, Abigail Breslin; Best Original Screenplay, written by Michael Arndt*)
*denotes win

There are hundreds of indie dysfunctional family comedies out there; in fact, they're pretty much a staple for independent filmmakers to get started with/make a career out of. So it's easy to be cynical about them, and assume that there isn't much difference between any of them. However, that would be an affair assumption, especially in regards to Little Miss Sunshine, a film that is on paper by-the-numbers but comes alive thanks to smart characters, terrific direction and brilliant performances from one of 2006's finest ensembles.

The premise is basic: the Hoover family is a typical dysfunctional family. Richard (Greg Kinnear) has built his life around a self-help program he calls the Nine Steps, and is hoping to get a book deal to promote it. Sheryl (Toni Collette) works a job and takes care of the kids, and is tasking with picking up her brother Frank (Steve Carrell) from the hospital after he attempts to kill himself (a long story involving a relationship with a student, his firing from the university and losing a prestigeous grant to a rival Proust scholar). Dwayne (Paul Dano) has taken a vow of silence until he gets into flight school, and Olive (Abigail Breslin) is training with Grandpa (Alan Arkin), who was kicked out of a nursing home for his heroin habit, for the Little Miss Sunshine pageant. When Olive gets to compete in Redondo Beach in California, the whole family piles into the VW van for a trip of fighting and healing.

Before I go on to hail this magnificent ensemble, let's first talk about the little things that separate this film from all of its imitators. Though we've seen plenty of redemptive road trip movies, but thankfully writer Arndt (who would go on to write the Toy Story 3 script as well) puts plenty of minor details into the dialogue, details that had they been directly, explicitly addressed in the beginning, they would have taken away from the snappy dinner-table scene. For example, we learn over the course of the film that Cheryl was divorced, and that Dwayne's father is not Richard. For a good portion of the film this is unspoken, but it contributes to the character dynamics throughout; that's really smart writing. Dayton and Faris' direction is also great, playing off the dynamics visually and guiding the performances excellently. Dayton and Faris still have not released a follow-up; hopefully that will happen soon. They all bring a great story to life, one where every character's suffering and redemption feels earned rather than forced. And of course, the highlight of the film is the pageant itself, featuring a wildly inappropriate dance number that is weirdly, yet perfectly, fitting for the Hoovers.

At the time of the film's release, Carrell, who had recently become a star thanks to The Office and The 40-Year-Old Virgin, received much of the attention for his performance as gay, suicidal Frank. It's a great reminder that Carrell is a deft actor, capable of handling drama just as well as he can comedy. Breslin and Arkin earned Oscar nominations for their performances, and each one is great. Olive is truly the titular little miss sunshine, cheerful and blissfully ignorant of the various conflicts within the Hoover family, and Breslin does a fine job at bringing that childlike glee to the screen. Arkin gets a few great foulmouthed scenes to shine, but shows great heart in his scenes with Breslin. However, Dano is fantastic as Nietzsche-reading Dwayne, conveying so much anguish and ennui with his blank, silent expressions. Kinnear gets a great chance to shine as the winning-minded Richard, a man who's so lost in his own mind that he doesn't realize that he is not the winner he thinks he is. But best of all is Collette, a vastly underrated actress who shines as Sheryl, bringing out both strong maternal instincts, a no-nonsense attitude and feelings of being overwhelmed by life.  It's a first-rate performance, one that I'm sad to see overlooked.

Little Miss Sunshine stands far and above the pack, better than any of its imitators and certainly worthy of the Best Picture nomination it picked up. Though it could have easily been cloying and overly clever, instead it remains grounded in its characters and makes them human, rather than a collection of quirks.

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