Quirk Comes Alive
Fingerprints of the "quirky indie" are all over Little Miss Sunshine, particularly in the form of eccentric characters. This is a fully character-driven piece -- it takes a dysfunctional six-member family and puts them on a road trip where things inevitably go wrong and test the limits of their personalities. Under any normal circumstances, this would be insufferable, as there are few things as irksome to me as forced preciousness.
But Little Miss Sunshine is saved by an ace -- its cast. This is one to die for: Greg Kinnear as the father Richard, a success-starved motivational speaker; Toni Collette as Sheryl, the mother and glue of the family; Alan Arkin as Grandpa, irascible, foul-mouthed, and lecherous; Steve Carell as Frank, a despondent Proust scholar and Sheryl's gay, recently suicidal brother; Paul Dano as the teenage son Dwayne, resentful of his surroundings and currently in a vow of silence; and, perhaps best of all, Abigail Breslin as Olive, the seven-year-old girl whose dream of becoming a beauty queen begins with the possibility of winning the Little Miss Sunshine pageant.
Yes, the descriptions of the characters sound like they come straight from an indie recipe book, but the script gives them equal time, and the actors give them life. Not only do they manage to convey real human beings underneath the potential caricatures, they also convince us they're a real family with real family chemistry, wherein all the arguments, yelling, and sniping are shown as the byproducts of an unspoken devotion and understanding. Kinnear has the toughest job, as his character is the most dislikeable, but by the end we can see where he's coming from and how hard he's learned his lessons. A pleasant surprise is the interaction between Dano and Carell's characters, who bond through their experiences of disappointment and disillusionment, one from living life and the other from teenage unrest. Carell in particular gives one of those revelation performances, displaying a human depth we, for some reason, never seem to expect from our popular comic performers.
The plot involves these six people getting into their old VW bus and hurriedly driving cross state to California in order to register Olive in the pageant on time. Naturally, Murphy's Law kicks in, with the dilapidated bus causing them much of the problems. Thematically, the movie explores America's culture of winning, how it perverts people, and how success may be alternately viewed. It finds its center with Olive, who is young enough to be molded with different ideas of what winning means, and whose own innocent ideas, formed as the point where her natural personality and the teachings of others meet, influence those of the family in return.
Olive's eventual turn at the pageant is a comically effective one. We see the parade of Sunshine contestants in all their freakish glory, and by this point we really want to protect the sweet little girl we've been watching this whole time. What we're happy to find out is that Olive can take care of herself, not through a conscious determination but through the force of her relative innocence. Breslin pulls this character off expertly -- she's almost too cute, actually. In a different movie, she might've been too much, but with this cast we believe what we're seeing, and all the performances, including hers, are enhanced for the better.
(Released by Fox Searchlight Pictures and rated "R" for language, some sex and drug content.)
Review also posted on www.windowtothemovies.com.