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USA 2006
Directed by
Jonathan Dayton / Valerie Faris
101 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Andrew Lee
3.5 stars

Little Miss Sunshine

Young Olive Hoover (Abigail Breslin) has just been accepted into the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant in California. But the Hoovers live three days drive away and they can’t afford plane tickets to send her. Unfortunately, her uncle Frank (Steve Carell) has just attempted suicide and is living with the family so that they keep an eye on him. They can’t leave him alone so it's a family road trip?

Opening on a man in hospital who has just attempted suicide, then dumping him as a major character to focus on the minutiae of his extended family while slowly following his own journey to realising that misery is happiness and success is found in failure, Little Miss Sunshine is one of those feel-good-about-life films that manages to inject just enough darkness to be acceptable. Possibly the best reason to explain this lies in one of the major influences on the script. The spirit of Kurt Vonnegut inhabits this film. The family are named the Hoovers, and their son is named Dwayne. It’s no 'Breakfast Of Champions' (the book, not the godawful movie), but it definitely has the crazed ambience of Vonnegut surrounding it.

The film embodies two classic genres, the dysfunctional family film, and the road movie. It smooshes them together quite effectively, and uses the cramped confines of a VW van to really amplify the tensions in the family. There are a lot of things going on too. Grandpa (Alan Arkin) snorts heroin because, well, he’s old and it can’t do any harm now. Teenage son Dwayne (Paul Dano) has taken a vow of silence and has devoted himself to Nietzsche. Father, Richard, (Greg Kinnear) has dreams of becoming a self-help guru, but isn’t really up to the task. Mum, Sheryl (Toni Collette), is trying to keep her brother from killing himself and her husband from blowing their entire savings on pursuing his dream.  And little Olive just wants to compete in a beauty pageant. Throw in Uncle Frank, the nation’s foremost Proust scholar and aforementioned post-suicide attempt patient, and you’ve got more than a little going on.

It would be so easy to dismiss Little Miss Sunshine, since despite an obvious struggle for originality, it doesn’t feel like anything particularly new. A soundtrack that for no apparent reason includes indie-pop darlings like Sufjan Stevens further pushes the buttons on the cynicism side of the brain. But if the film fails to break new ground, the actors really sell the humanity of the characters, and you like ‘em despite yourself. Its beauty is that despite a lot of predictable moments, hyper-real characters and amazingly contrived situations, you still get a sense of warmth and honesty.The satire is sharp, and the beauty pageant at the end of the film is so thoroughly disturbing that little Olive’s dance number seems not only totally appropriate, but less screwed up than anything else that has come before it. Special mention should also go to Alan Arkin for flawless delivery of some incredibly funny (and dodgy) advice from grandfather to grandchild. The lines are cheap, but the delivery infuses them with richness.

That’s pretty much the story of the film. It’s quirky, trying too hard at times to be so, but it’s fun all the same.




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