Movie and Film Reviews (MFR) Comedy,Drama Little Miss Sunshine (2006)

Little Miss Sunshine (2006)

Everybody…just pretend to be normal

Little Miss Sunshine details the journey of a dysfunctional, but ultimately lovable family as they try to make to it
California to see their daughter, Olive, perform in a beauty pageant.

It’s hard to describe in essence what Little Miss Sunshine is, as it is all at once many things. If you believe the trailers then you’ll be led to believe that this is an out-and-out family comedy. Although on the face of it, it plays out as tragic-comedy, as we witness the family go through many twists and turns on their journey. This is what makes the film so endearing, as the family are clearly on the verge of a breakdown and yet are forced to spend time with each other.

The film, distributed by Fox Searchlight pictures, is one of the many indie films of late that have managed to break through into mainstream awareness and generate much deserved buzz. Although made for $8,000,000 the film appeals to the mainstream in terms of its aesthetics and its cast. Featuring Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Steve Carrell and Alan Arkin; it is also attributed to launching the careers of new comers Paul Dano and Abigail Breslin.

The plot essentially revolves around the Hoover family, who live in a humble house in
Albuquerque, New Mexico. The fractured family is made up of strained mother Sheryl (Collette), motivational speaker father Richard (Greg Kinnear), foul mouthed Grandpa (Alan Arkin), mute by choice son Dwayne (Paul Dano), gay Proust scholar and failed suicidal Frank (Steve Carell) and chubby, glasses wearing Olive (Abigail Breslin).After a rather awkward, tension filled meal between the characters and for the audience to watch, the family learn that Olive has made it into the state finals of the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant.  This propels the story forward and the family, with all their faults and problems are forced to travel together in the family’s clapped out VW Van, whether they like it or not.

What makes this film resonate with mainstream audiences, is that a family as dysfunctional as the
Hoovers does not seem that far off from families today. What Little Miss Sunshine does, is try to portray the modern family in a way that is real and a way that seeks those quirky moments that arise from the characters. Franks homosexuality, Grandpa’s bitterness with the world, are not dealt with in a meaningful and serious way, but are dealt with in a way that is real.  This is not a film that tiptoes around these issues nor does it force you as an audience to bite off more than you can chew when you watch the film. Each characters storyline is dealt with in a tender way and this is what keeps the story moving forward. The tension between Sheryl and Frank, Dwanyes hatred of everyone, Grandpa’s addiction, Franks recovery are really at the heart of the story. This reality is like a thread that runs through the film, keeping it together.

The humour, comes from the tragedy or misfortune that family go through. There are genuinely moments where you don’t whether you should laugh or feel sorry for the characters. The result is a film with black comedy streak, which gives it its indie credentials. Most films about family life wouldn’t dare touch issues such as suicide, drug abuse or homosexuality.

Another of the great things about this film is the ensemble cast – they work together and no one person is singled out as being better than the rest. This film is really a character driven story; the plot merely plays second fiddle to them. Steve Carell is particularly impressive, in his first serious role, and who at the time of filming was relatively unknown. His portrayal of homosexual, scholar Frank is convincing and heartfelt. 

The performances are impressive from the entire cast. It is hard to pick out one from all of them. The performances are all so naturalistic it makes it easy to believe in these characters, and family itself. Greg Kinnear is great in his role of motivational speaker who loses out on a great career deal. Throughout the film he goes from being arrogant to somewhat pathetic which Kinnear plays this with a lot of conviction. The cast work well together on screen, and there is a chemistry about the actors which is hard to achieve between a large cast. Alan Arkin, brings life and humour to his character as the bitter, foul mouthed Grandfather, Edwin, which he won as Oscar for, he delivers a lot of the comedy early on in the film. Abigail Breslin, gives a sunny performance as Olive which is charming and sweet. She proves herself as a child actress in this film and gives a performance that is beyond her years.  

The first-time feature film directors, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris noted that what works about the cast is that they don’t chase the jokes. Which is true of all of the cast members, they all play it straight, which works for the film, and makes the comic moments come naturally. For instance the scene at the hospital quickly goes from being very sombre to turning into a farce, but the way it is played out feels low key and realistic, making it seem believable rather than slapstick.  

What is also endearing about the characters in this film is that they are all flawed in some way. And yet, they are our heroes, we want them to succeed, it’s not often that this is the case in films. In another sense, the film is about a family who haven’t made the American dream, a family who in a sense are all losers. This is a theme that runs throughout the film, and something Dwayne frankly points out once he begins to talk “Divorce? Bankrupt? Suicide?….You’re all losers” Frank is a loser because he failed in his career and personal life, and failed at attempting suicide, Richard is a loser because he is failing to provide for his family and Dwayne is a failure because he can’t become a pilot. After realising this, you begin to realise why Richard desperately wants his daughter to make it the pageant.  Olive is their one chance of winning at something, or achieving something that she can be proud of. Her only fault, is that she a slightly heavier than the rest of the other girls in the beauty pageant.

As well as the comedic moments, there are also the subtle tender moments that prove the film can hold its own as a family drama. Although at times, the film can seem a little contrived in terms of its story, there are some genuinely touching moments between the characters born out of their struggles. The speech Alan Arkin gives to Greg Kinnear on the bus after Kinnear’s character has just lost a deal, is genuinely touching and shows deep down perhaps this is a family who care for each other. Although simple, the scene is one of many that show how the directors can get great moments of drama in very simple surroundings. It is also a real change of pace for Arkin’s character, and shows a real tenderness between father and son. Another great moment is the scene when Dwayne learns he can’t become a pilot. His outburst is the first time we really see him speak and we can really feel his frustration and anger. Paul Dano takes on the character wonderfully, as he refuses to go back to the family. I thought it was a nice touch that it was Olive who without saying anything, is the one to convince him to return. This scene is also shot beautifully, like many of the scenes that are filmed on the road, the shot composition, lighting and beautiful landscape as the backdrop make the scene really jump of the screen.

Without giving too much away, for me, what really makes the film enjoyable and gives it that sense of independence is the scene at the end, when the family all one by one, all join Olive on the stage. It makes a lot of sense after Dwayne notes “Life is one big beauty pagent” It’s like they’re all giving the crowd and society the finger. They know they shouldn’t, its as though they have nothing left to loose. They’ve been through a lot, and its as if they just don’t care any more. Its satisfying to watch, as the crowd and the judges become increasingly irate, the family just carries on dancing, its as though for that moment everything is normal, as though carrying on as their daughter does an inappropriate dance to Superfreak.

With great casting choices, tragedy and comedy that seem to go hand in hand and a great script, Little Miss Sunshine, is definitely one of the best breakout films. Its ability to draw you into this fractured family, and story make this a rare treat of a film. As Carell puts it “It can get ugly and it can get sad and it can get funny, and that’s how life really is.

In the end, its not about winning or losing, its about the journey. So when Greg Kinnear’s character asks the family “What are we? Are we winners or losers?” it’s really up to the audience to decide.

Directed by: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie FarisWritten by: Michael Arndt Produced by: Micheal Beugg, and Jeb Brody Starring: Greg Kinnear, Alan Arkin, Paul Dana, Abigail Breslin, Steve Carell, Toni Collette

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