The new training ground of American filmmakers seems to be in the realm of music videos. Over the last several years Spike Jonze, David Fincher, Michel Gondry, David LaChapelle have all made somewhat noteworthy films. Joining that list are Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who won an MTV VMA for their work on the Smashing Pumpkins "Tonight, Tonight" video. Here they don't rely on a surreal text or hyper stylized visuals, but instead seem to bring only their pacing to the table. Compared to the other video directors turned filmmakers, Little Miss Sunshine seems to be one of, if not the most subdued and naturalistic film of the bunch.
For once I'd have to say that the trailer for a film actually helps to capture what the film is about. Having witnessed several advertisements for the film I had a familiarity with the film, and was casually sucked into a "I know what'll happen next" mentality. That pre-configured notion of guessing the action though gets slightly askewed in the films dramatic turns. Some of them seem straight out of National Lampoon's Vacation, particularly the VW mishaps and even the seemingly trademark death in the family. There are a few things you may see coming such as Dwayne (Paul Dano) ending his self imposed vow of silence, or some inspired comedy at the hands of the supremely smutty Grandpa (Alan Arkin). Somewhere over the last decade senoir citizens have become the most vile and vulgar characters in film and TV (which was the subject of great parody in a Simpson's episode). However you forget about it because Arkin is just that damn good in his role.
As a matter of fact everyone is that damn good in this film. Everyone making up the family is absolutely perfect. You can detect not only that these people know and relate to each other, but everyone seems perfectly suited to the challenges their role require. Greg Kinnear plays something of his typical type, something of a nice guy trying to make his own way and having a rather difficult time of it. He comes off as an annoying armchair quarterback of a father, constantly telling his children about what it takes to be "a winner". Toni Collette plays his wife and she is once again exemplary. The two play off of each other well and they have a nagging/argumentative relationship that perfectly reflects where their relationship should be considering their personalities. Being the female role, Collette naturally has more opportunities to show emotion, but her presence never overwhelms the film.
Steve Carell seems to still be in the process of proving himself as not just an actor, but a bankable movie star. He certainly made a great impression on most viewers in last years 40 Year Old Virgin, and this time around his role bears no similarities to that. He plays the depressed uncle Frank, who's just been released from the hospital for attempting suicide. He claims to be the number one Proust scholar, but finds himself out of a job (one of the reasons for the suicide). The fact that he has devoted so much of his life to Proust says something about his character. He delights in his own knowledge, and plays the intellectual quite well. He and Richard don't get along at all, and they seem to be nearly at each other's throats throughout. Richard alienates his family, whereas Frank finds himself much more adept at handling things and offering advice, even if his own life hasn't quite worked out so well.
In one of the film's defining moments of undermining, Olive (Abigail Breslin) orders ice cream in a roadside diner. When Frank begins to explain what a-la mode means, Richard undercuts him by explaining that ice cream is fattening, and "winners" particularly Miss America winners aren't fat and probably don't eat ice cream. Olive, who we've already seen is a little portly, decides she doesn't want her ice cream when it arrives. Frank decides he's going to dig in, and offers spoons to Grandpa and Dwayne and all begin eating and making exagerrated gestures on how good it is, and of course Olive gives in and takes it back. Then in a great frame, we see a defeated Richard and his wife Sheryl smiling approvingly.
The film has numerous inspired moments, and the beauty pageant is everything you could hope for. A barrage of embarrassed parents, creepy kids with ludicriously large hair and too much makeup, and an MC that's a complete and utter talentless tool. I can't quite get into describing Olive's dance routine and do it justice, but I was honestly surprised, and it certainly made for a great finale. Although the characters all seem to have assigned quirks, the actors make the roles work for them. In fact I doubt there will be a better acted film all year.
Grade A -