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Miss Sunshine, the “Little” Film that Could

Brian Doxtader | Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Editor’s Note: This is the third in a five-part series on the 2007 Oscar nominees for Best Picture.

“Little Miss Sunshine” is the Little Movie That Could, a small film that flew under the radar upon its initial release, but gradually gained steam to become this year’s dark horse Best Picture nominee.

There seems to be one every year – the film whose very nomination is a bit perplexing, who seems overmatched and undermanned in the furious race for cinema’s biggest prize. “Little Miss Sunshine” garnered a nod over bigger and more visible films like “Dreamgirls” (the leader of the pack in terms of pure numbers, with eight nods) and “Children of Men.”

For some reason, the Academy really likes to throw in one of these kinds of films every year. Consider some of the Best Picture nominees over the past decade: “Chocolat” (2000), “In the Bedroom” (2001), “The Cider House Rules” (1999), “Elizabeth” (1998), and “The Full Monty” (1997). None of these films had the clout and marketing power of the bigger studio productions and each was doomed almost from the start to be an also-ran.

So why, without fail, does the Academy nominate a film that has almost no chance of winning? Well, history has proven that these kinds of films actually do have a slim chance of winning. The appeal with a film like “Little Miss Sunshine,” which isn’t being marketed as hard as some of the bigger pictures in the race (including the no-show “Dreamgirls”) is that it allows voters to “discover” it on their own without being told to like it. It’s the same kind of appeal that drove the last two Best Picture winners, Paul Haggis’ “Crash” and Clint Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby,” respectively. Neither of those two films had much Oscar buzz in the early going (“Crash” was even released in the summer, an almost definite sign that it wasn’t being considered for the awards season), but the buzz gradually gained momentum and hit its apex on Oscar night – before any backlash could befall it.

Those two wins indicate that there’s something of a shift in mentality – the “Miramax Marketing Machine,” which so successfully used snob appeal to drive “The English Patient” (1996) and “Shakespeare in Love” to Best Picture wins, has come up empty in the past few years. Oversaturation of the last two Scorsese pics, “Gangs of New York” (2002) and “The Aviator” (2004), led to a backlash that cost the films (and some say Scorsese as well) come Oscar night.

Unlike the Best Actor and Best Actress races, which seem to be sewn up well before Oscar night, there really aren’t very many guarantees in the Best Picture race. Upsets happen, and with startling frequency. Neither “Crash” nor “Million Dollar Baby” nor “Shakespeare in Love” were the favorites walking in the door, and it seemed almost inconceivable at the time that they would topple the juggernauts that were “Brokeback Mountain,” “The Aviator” and “Saving Private Ryan,” respectively.

If “Little Miss Sunshine” wins the Best Picture Oscar on February 25, it will indeed be an upset, but perhaps not as big an upset as people will make it. With no clear frontrunner, it’s entirely possible that “The Departed” and “Babel” will split the vote, allowing a smaller film like “Little Miss Sunshine” to slip through the cracks and take home the top prize.

Is it probable? No. But it wouldn’t be the first time that an upstart film came from left field to be named the Best Picture. Just ask Clint Eastwood or Paul Haggis.