Little Miss Sunshine
Directed by Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris | Fox Searchlight | 101 minutes
Starring Alan Arkin, Abigail Breslin, Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Paul Dano, Greg Kinnear
The Hoover family takes the term “dysfunction” to a superlatively dismal level. The poor Hoovers are featured in the often hilarious, truly heart-warming film Little Miss Sunshine. The father, Richard (Greg Kinnear) leads the family and struggles as a motivational speaker. This is such a delightfully paradoxical concept that I am surprised such a character has never emerged on screen before. Richard finds himself mired in a frustrating Catch-22. How can he motivate people for success when he has not been successful as a motivator? Richard’s father (Alan Arkin) has recently been expelled from his retirement home for snorting heroin. Now he delivers an incessant assault of bad advice to his grandchildren, particularly teenager Dwayne (Paul Dano). Through his fervent reading of Nietzsche, Dwayne has decided that he will never speak and that he hates everyone. Olive (Abigail Breslin), the cute and sensitive seven-year-old, is likely the single well-adjusted member of the family, but her dreams of one day becoming Miss America are probably less than realistic. Uncle Frank (Steve Carell) has come to live with the family because he has recently attempted suicide, mainly over his unrequited love for another man. Carell, who has gained significant popularity playing a frivolous dolt with a twinkle in his eye, shows that he can be equally funny playing a depressed intellectual. Sheryl (Toni Collette), the harried mother, much like Ma Joad from The Grapes of Wrath, is desperately trying to keep the family together and functioning.
Thankfully, the Great Depression is long over and unlike the Joads, who migrated to California out of sheer survival, the Hoovers all pile into their rickety VW bus and head for the sunshine state so little Olive can compete in a child beauty pageant. First- time directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris turn in a solid B+ effort in Little Miss Sunshine. They have found just the right pacing for their sleek comedy, which does not drag for a second. Rookie screenwriter Michael Arndt efficiently blends laughs with gravity in such a way that I already look forward to his second offering. Arndt presents no caricatures. Every member of the Hoover family is a fully realised, profound character.
Little Miss Sunshine examines modern society’s preoccupation with success. “There are only two kinds of people in the world,” Richard repeats throughout the movie, “winners and losers. And every one of us has what it takes to be a winner.” Of course, reality does not unfold in such black-and-white terms. Everyone has both strengths and deficiencies. No one can win at everything all the time. A child beauty pageant is a fitting subject for an exploration of this theme, but just about any type of competition would do. If losing is unacceptable, but there is only one winner amongst dozens of contestants then… well, you do the math. Each individual of the Hoover family has failed in a significant aspect of his or her life, but that’s okay.
They are at least winners in that, despite their severe problems, the Hoovers truly love one another. They aggravate and berate each other bitterly, but when one of them sinks down far enough, another knows how to pull him back up. This develops delicately and effectively as the film progresses. The familial care emanates right through the dysfunction. The regularly ill-tempered Grandpa is buying pornographic magazines, but is all the while preoccupied with his son’s important business call. When he reads in his son’s face that things went badly, he encourages him without prying. Many films, after establishing a character as an old curmudgeon, grasp for laughs by letting him grow meaner in each scene. This film’s treatment is more satisfying because it rings closer to the truth.
At one point, Dwayne knows that Mom needs a hug from her young daughter, and he discreetly effects it. At another, Olive understands that a gentle hand on her brother’s shoulder, without any words, will snap him out of his temporary tirade. Later, Olive’s father and brother simultaneously but independently realise what course of action would be least harmful to her. This kind of perception, unity, and love embodies a success ultimately more substantial than any for which they strive individually.
Little Miss Sunshine is not without flaws. A couple of times the characters engage in actions no real people ever would. This clunkily, though only briefly, pushes the movie into the realm of slapstick, a place it does not belong. Furthermore, in an early scene, the angst-ridden Dwayne sports a T-shirt which reads “Jesus was…” the bottom of which is revealed several scenes later to read “…wrong.” This will understandably offend some, though it serves as more of a caveat against reading too much Nietzsche at too young an age than as a subversive nose-thumbing at Christianity. Fifteen-year-old Dwayne is frustrated and confused about almost everything. He does get a theological comeuppance, though all this may play out a little too subtly for some viewers. The overall merit of the picture, however, outweighs the few blemishes.
Some critics have predicted Little Miss Sunshine as a dark horse for some award attention at the end of the year. These aspirations may be too high as its buzz is already starting to fade. This type of film generally does not receive too many prizes because the award groups tend to honour mediocre drama over good comedy. Since the Golden Globes have a separate category for comedy, it may see a nomination there, but it is still quite a long shot for any critics’ awards or an Oscar nomination. Well, not all movies can be winners, but that’s okay.
Justin Myers is a film reviewer and teacher of Latin and Greek in the Washington DC area.
Little Miss Sunshine