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Sunshine’ Still Radiant

Sean Sweany | Friday, January 19, 2007

Every family has its quirks. No recent film demonstrates this so wholeheartedly as the charming, sleeper hit of 2006, “Little Miss Sunshine,” recently released on DVD. With a buzz generated at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, “Little Miss Sunshine” – helmed by husband/wife directing team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris – took Hollywood, the indie circuit and both mainstream and art-house audiences by storm.

Faris and Dayton, who had previously done only television commercials and music videos for bands like The Red Hot Chili Peppers and Smashing Pumpkins, turned the initially small-budget production into an award-winning film.

The movie follows a girl, Olive Hoover (Abigail Breslin), who aspires to win the Little Miss Sunshine beauty contest but needs the help of her family to cross the country in their bright yellow Volkswagen bus amidst several family crises to make it to the pageant on time.

The opening sequence of the film travels from character to character, showing the audience vignettes of each person and their personal problems. Richard (Greg Kinnear) and wife Sheryl (Toni Collette) face the struggles of supporting their family when money is a problem. The son, Dwayne (Paul Dano), begins the movie in a vow of silence in honor of Nietzsche and, like any teenager, finds his family crazy.

Steve Carrell breaks away from his usual funnyman antics and portrays the Proust scholar and clinically-depressed brother of Sheryl, Frank, who recently attempted suicide because of a failed romance with a male graduate student. Alan Arkin – the perennial supporting actor best known for roles in “Edward Scissorhands” and “Wait Until Dark” – plays the vulgar, drug-addict grandfather who shepherds Abigail on her path to win the beauty contest.

The undoubted star – playing the character whom all the others revolve around and eventually look to for stability in their family – is Breslin, who began her career as Mel Gibson’s daughter in M. Night Shyamalan’s “Signs.” She perfectly plays Olive, who is not the conventional entrant in a beauty pageant, but who has the dream and desire to compete regardless.

Comparisons to Dakota Fanning are easy to make, but Breslin shows a much broader and wide range of talent than Fanning has ever shown. Her best trait, which makes the movie so endearing to the viewer, is the ability to act as a character who is markedly different than everyone around her, but yet feels no shame or embarrassment from this. Her performance is stunning to watch and goes down as one of the best screen performances of 2006.

The DVD is light on extras, but this is not terribly noticeable as the main attraction is the film itself. Several alternate endings make up the bulk of the special features, which give interesting insight into the thought processes of the directors in crafting an ending to the film. Beyond this, the various commentaries are interesting, but nothing more or less than in most other films of this nature.

This character drama succeeds because the audience becomes the final family member traveling in the dilapidated VW bus across the country and lives the ups and downs of life together with the Hoovers. The sense of reality is tangible and any viewer can find traits to which they can relate in various characters. At times hilarious and at times dark and sad, “Little Miss Sunshine” is one of those rare films that is able to entertain while also teaching audiences something about family at the same time.