Sunshine’ blends drama, humor with heart
Erin McGinn | Tuesday, September 5, 2006
“Little Miss Sunshine” almost perfectly meshes the dysfunctional family drama with a road trip comedy.
The focus of the movie is on the Hoover family road trip from Albuquerque, N.M. to Redondo Beach, Calif. where seven year old Olive (Abigail Breslin, ‘Raising Helen’) is set to compete in the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant.
Along for the ride is Olive’s father, Richard (Greg Kinnear, “The Matador”), a motivational speaker who is trying to sell his “nine-step program” for success. Also among Olive’s entourage are her perpetually exasperated and overworked mother, Sheryl (Toni Collette, ‘In Her Shoes’) and her brother, Dwayne (Paul Dano, ‘Girl Next Door’), who has taken a vow of silence (he hasn’t spoken in nine months) until he gets in the Air Force Academy.
Completing the dysfunctional family are Uncle Frank (Steve Carell, ’40 Year Old Virgin’), a gay Proust scholar who recently tried to take his own life, and the porn-loving Grandpa (Alan Arkin, ‘Grosse Point Blank’) who was evicted from a retirement home for snorting heroin, a habit he continues without the family knowing.
Despite constant bickering, a steady diet of take-out fried chicken and a huge difference of opinion, the Hoovers agree to drive Olive, in their beat-up Volkswagon van, which they wind up hilariously pushing for much of the movie. The two-day journey pushes the family to the limits and ultimately defines the difference between being a loser and tasting victory.
The husband-and-wife directing team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (who have not directed much besides music videos) don’t miss a beat, balancing the eccentricity and darkly funny and offbeat events with tender moments, but they never linger too long in the sentimental territory.
First-time screenwriter Michael Arndt demonstrates how perfection is found in simplicity. For this story and these characters Arndt delivers the perfect ending. His screenplay has something going on almost every minute and each scene flows smoothly into the next.
The performances are excellent, and in the end, all of the characters are incredibly endearing. Kinnear has a lightweight presence, but shows surprising poignancy as the motivational guru who can’t motivate anybody. Carell is incredibly pretentious as the cynical ex-professor, and his approach to dry humor serves the film well. Breslin is adorable as little Olive and the ending scene at the beauty pageant is absolutely priceless.
The pursuit of happiness is the main theme, along with sidebar discussions about what separates winners from losers. Grandpa’s philosophy is the one the film adopts – “A real loser isn’t someone who doesn’t win. A real loser is someone so afraid of not winning that they don’t even try.”
The world would look upon the Hoovers as a bunch of losers, but they want to be winners. More importantly, they want to think of themselves as winners. Despite the indie-film stereotypes in the character profiles, the actors find the humanity in their roles and stick to it through every joke and tragedy.
Much of the story is predictable, but not what happens when Olive takes the stage at the beauty pageant. This is not just a surprise, but also an epiphany. Suffering may be part of the human condition, but happiness can triumph at the strangest moment.