A resounding success at Sundance, where it sold for a rumored $10 million amid frantic interest from multiple distributors, Little Miss Sunshine gives us a glorious peek into the lives of the Hoovers, a not-so-happy family, which, as Tolstoy might have noted, is "unhappy in its own way." That's a good thing, because really, who would want to sit for 90 minutes watching a happy family?
There's so much more room for interesting relationships, drama, and the delicately comedic moments that life has a way of wringing out of tragedy, in a family that's miserable most of the time and clinging together. As the film opens, Sheryl (Toni Collette), the family matriarch, is picking up her brother Frank (Steve Carell), the self-described "number one Proustian scholar in the world," from the hospital following a botched suicide attempt. She brings Frank home under strict orders that he is not to be left alone, which means he gets to share a bedroom with the household teenager, Dwayne (Paul Dano), who isn't talking to anyone.
Dwayne, you see, wants more than anything to be an Air Force pilot, and he's taken a vow of silence until he accomplishes that laudable goal. He also hates his family, with the exception of younger sister Olive (Abigail Breslin), and spends most of his time wallowing in the depths of nihilism in his room while a giant drawing of Nietzsche glowers down at him. Dad Richard wants desperately to be the next guru of self-help programs, and has hinged all his hopes, dreams and his family's financial stability on selling the book he's written detailing his "Nine Steps" to success. Richard spends lots of time talking about how important it is to be a winner -- a philosophy he's even more desperate to hang onto now that he's on the verge of being a loser. For Richard, the stakes are high -- if he can't sell the Nine Steps, he's the antithesis of everything his program stands for.
Rounding out the capricious crew are Grandpa (Alan Arkin), Richard's father, who, when he's not finding creative ways to curse, looking at porn or snorting heroin in the bathroom, is working with his granddaughter on her beauty pageant routine. As the family sits down to dinner the night Sheryl brings Frank home, Olive learns that by a fluke, she's been accepted into the highly competitive Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant -- that weekend, in California. Suddenly all is chaos. Sheryl is determined to find a way to get Olive to the pageant, Richard says they can't afford to fly there, so next thing you know, the whole family is packed into their VW van, which has definitely seen better days, to make the trek to the pageant.
That's all you're getting out of me about the plot, because this movie has so many gems of moments buried within it, it would be a shame to deny you the sheer pleasure of unearthing them yourself. Suffice it to say that Little Miss Sunshine is more than just a road trip movie, and deeper than your average comedic farce. There is humor, to be sure -- lots of it -- but the funny bits are smart and very often tinged with just the right amount of pathos to make the characters seem truly human. Life is like that, often funny and sad at the same time, and first-time scribe Michael Arndt hits just about every note right.
Husband-and-wife directing team Jonathon Dayton and Valerie Faris, perhaps best known up to this point for the Smashing Pumpkins music videos they've directed, have established themselves firmly with their frosh effort as directors to watch. They handle this ensemble cast deftly, never allowing any one of the talented cast to shine too brightly in the spotlight. They understand, clearly, how families work, and they've captured the family dynamic here in a way that feels altogether real and familiar. This is how families are. Maybe the details of your family are better (or worse) than the Hoovers, but at heart, family is about sticking together and supporting each other, and even when they're at each other's throats, that's what the Hoovers do.
Faris and Dayton dip their toes into the murky waters of child beauty pageants, simultaneously managing not to be condescending toward the real-life beauty pageant vets who were cast in the film, while still sending a clear message about what constitutes real beauty. They could have gotten preachy here, really getting behind-the-scenes of pageants like the fictitious Little Miss Sunshine, a world where little girls have personal trainers and thousand-dollar evening gowns, and have been known to have baby teeth pulled and replaced with caps, so as not to mar perfect smiles with seven-year-old missing-tooth gaps.
But really, that's not what this film is about, and so instead, Faris and Dayton take the high road, simply contrasting Olive's vivacious spirit and natural beauty with the plasticized mini-Barbies she's competing against. Once the Hoovers finally make it to the pageant, they realize that they know nothing about this world their young daughter has stumbled into, and the family has to pull together around Olive. Richard, who has been preaching "win-win-win" messages to Olive all the way there, suddenly faces seeing winning in an altogether new light.
With a cast this talented, one would expect to see some great performances,and the film has them in abundance. Kinnear, handed his best role since his Oscar-nominated turn in As Good As It Gets, gives Richard, who could have been annoying and one-dimensional, depth and humanity. Collette doesn't have the flashiest role in the film as Sheryl, the mom who just wants to support everyone and make everyone happy, but she plays the part perfectly, capturing that burning desire to please that drives so many women to do anything to make the people they love happy. Alan Arkin seems to be having a ball as the gruff-but-lovable, drug-using grandfather; there's a particularly moving scene between Grandpa and Olive in a hotel room that suddenly and unexpectedly takes on much more emotional weight a couple scenes later.
Casting Carell in the part of sad-sack Frank was a real stroke of luck for the directors. At the time Little Miss Sunshine was filmed, Carell was not yet the major star he would become in August, 2005, with his smash hit The 40-Year-Old Virgin. The characters he plays in both films couldn't be more different, and yet in Little Miss Sunshine, as in Virgin, Carell manages to carefully balance finding humor in what is really a sad portrait of a life, without poking too much fun or being mean-spirited. And then there are the kids.
Breslin, who previoiusly played Mel Gibson's daughter in Signs, is just great as Olive, the spunky little girl who doesn't realize she isn't conventionally beautiful. Breslin more than holds her own next to a group of very talented adult actors. Dano is a rising star, and his performance in this film demonstrates why: He takes a character who says nothing for most of the film, and yet manages to make him one of the most engaging characters in it. Dwayne is funny and real and terribly sad, and Dano captures the essence of his teenage angst and misery to a tee.
This is one of those rare films where all the elements come together to create this harmonious whole that just rings true every step of the way. If you've got a family, you'll find someone to relate to in Little Miss Sunshine. And chances are, you'll be thinking about the Hoovers, with all their flaws and foibles, long after you leave the theater.
Note: Karina Longworth reviewed Little Miss Sunshine at Sundance. You can read her take on the film here.