Little Miss Sunshine (2006)

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Little Miss Sunshine (2006)

Postby wpqx » Thu Aug 10, 2006 2:43 pm

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 -

Re: Little Miss Sunshine (2006)

Postby howardschumann(d) » Mon Jan 22, 2007 5:39 am


Directed by Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris (2006), 103 minutes

In real life dysfunctional families can cause immense pain to their children which may last a lifetime. In the movies, however, dysfunctional families are just eccentric rogues who, beneath their harsh exterior, can be as lovable as puppy dogs. No matter how dysfunctional they appear at the beginning, we sense that by the end of the movie, they will be dancing in a circle. Case in point Little Miss Sunshine, a heartwarming Indie comedy by first time directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris which has received much critical acclaim. The film is a funny and entertaining romp which tackles Americas obsession with winning and, in the process, targets crass pre-teen beauty pageants, motivational speakers, moody teenagers, emotionally unstable professors, and cantankerous old men.

While its heart is in the right place, its bullets are mostly scattershot, only occasionally hitting their targets and the film does not develop its ideas to the point where they have a hard edge. The dysfunctional family in question is the Hoovers (a Kentucky Fried Chicken in every pot?) whose home is in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The family all strive for something beyond their reach in pursuit of happiness in a society that bestows no garlands for second place. Like any good television sitcom, each character is molded to type and fits neatly into the films message. Richard, the father (Greg Kinnear) is a motivational speaker without anyone to motivate.

The opening of the film shows him giving his lecture that he calls Nine Steps to Success to a half-empty classroom (he might say it was half full). Sheryl (Toni Collette) is the long-suffering matriarch of the family who tries to pick up the pieces after her brother Frank (Steve Carell), a scholar of French writer Marcel Proust, fails in a suicide attempt after being given the boot by his gay lover who happens to be a student. The moody teenager Dwayne (Paul Dano) hasnt talked to anyone in a year and has vowed to remain silent until he is accepted in the Air Force Academy. Why an iconoclastic young man who reads Nietzsche would want to sign up for the U.S. military is one of those incongruities that will be better left to others to explain.

The center of the film, however, deals with seven-year old Olive (Abigail Breslin), a sweet but plain and not too attractive young lady with a pot belly who wants to become a beauty queen and her relationship with Grandpa (Alan Arkin), a lecherous cynic. When Olive places second in a beauty contest and the winner has to vacate her title because she took diet pills, the little girl becomes eligible to compete in the national Little Miss Sunshine contest in Redondo Beach, California. The film then becomes the road trip from hell as the family packs into their broken down VW bus running on two gears with contrived breakdowns in each characters life. Little Miss Sunshine reaches its maximum impact, however, at the beauty pageant where the directors show us overly sexualized children who strut their stuff and grotesquely parade in front of admiring family members in their pursuit of the American dream.

Quite hilarious is the pasty-faced emcee who sings America the Beautiful into the childrens ears. While the energy of the direction and excellence of the acting produces sympathy for the appealing characters, the comedy is at times so forced and its plot so implausible that even the excellent ensemble cast cannot save it. Little Miss Sunshine has a subversive feel to it and it correctly hints that intention is the key ingredient in achieving your goal, yet ultimately it is a pretty safe and comfortable ride and its message that winning isnt everything and losing has its rewards feels shopworn to the point of banality.


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