Road trip with oddball family drives past formula, into uplifting tragedy
Feeling depressed? Think no one’s got it worse than you? You need a little sunshine in your life a “Little Miss Sunshine,” to be exact.
This dysfunctional family road-trip comedy wallows in hilarious misery for an hour-and-a-half before miraculously showing there’s hope for anyone.
Sure, that’s the outline for a sitcom. But it’s rare to find one this good in any medium.
Directed by the husband-wife team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who have an extensive background in music videos, and written by Michael Arndt, whose lack of credits indicates the blood is still wet on his contract with the devil, this Sundance favorite keeps you weak from laughing and leaves you feeling exhilarated. What more could you want?
(OK, it’s summer. You could want gratuitous special effects and explosions. Well, you won’t get them here.)
To leave you the joy of discovery, I’ll just introduce the main characters and set up the premise.
Olive Hoover (Abigail Breslin), 7, is watching a tape of an old Miss America pageant and mimicking the winners’ reactions. She will soon learn she’s a finalist in the Little Miss Sunshine competition.
Olive’s father, Richard (Greg Kinnear), is delivering a motivational speech about his nine-step “Refuse to Lose” program to a small, unenthusiastic audience. He’s waiting to hear from his agent about a big book deal.
Olive’s brother, Dwayne (Paul Dano), 15, a Nietzsche-reading nihilist, is working out in his room. He’s vowed not to speak until he goes to the Air Force Academy and becomes a test pilot.
Their grandfather (Alan Arkin), Richard’s father, who lives with them since being thrown out of a nursing home, is snorting heroin. (“When you’re old, you’re crazy not to do it.”)
Richard’s wife, Sheryl (Toni Collette), a closet smoker, is picking up her gay brother, Frank (Steve Carell), from the hospital. “The number-one Proust scholar in the United States,” Frank attempted suicide after losing his grad student boyfriend and his credibility to a rival, and also losing his job and home.
When these six sit down together at the dinner table, it’s like one of those holiday movies about a dysfunctional family that gets together once a year. The fact that they will be living together indefinitely makes it more like “No Exit,” even if that’s Sartre not Proust or Nietzsche.
The house isn’t big enough for them all, so they pile into a VW bus for the drive from Albuquerque to Redondo Beach for the Little Miss Sunshine pageant. They don’t meet any chainsaw-wielding killers on the way, but everything else that can go wrong does.
The casting couldn’t be better, with Kinnear taking top honors. If you’ve never thought about what it would be like to live with a motivational speaker, he’ll leave you with recurring nightmares about it. But since he divides the world into winners and losers, it’s almost touching when he realizes he’s on the wrong side of his own equation.
“Luck,” Richard preaches, “is the name losers give to their own failings.”
Cranky, raunchy Grandpa offers a more affirming philosophy: “A real loser is someone who’s so afraid of not winning he doesn’t even try.”
Carell is admirably low-key as Frank, whose gayness is no big deal, though initially a novelty to Olive. He could as easily have attempted suicide over a woman, so it’s to the filmmakers’ credit that they made him gay without passing judgment on him.
Watching this family actually become a family provides an uplifting finish to what’s otherwise one of the funniest tragedies you’ve ever seen.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, August 11, 2006.