© 2006 Ray Wong
Little Miss Sunshine was a Sundance Festival darling this year. With its quirky characters and ironic storytelling, it was a crowd pleaser, fetching a handsome distribution deal in the process. Hopefully the good word of mouth will meet the high expectations and offset the film's obvious flaws.
Olive (Breslin) is a little girl dreaming of becoming Miss America someday. When she wins a spot to the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant in Los Angeles, his family decides to take her on a road trip in their VW microbus. Her father, Richard (Kinnear), is a motivational speaker on the verge of bankruptcy. His wife, Sheryl (Collette), doesn't really get along with him, and her brother Frank (Carell) has attempted suicide after a failed romance with a male graduate student and losing his job. Olive's brother, Dwayne (Dano) is a big follower of Nietzsche and has taken a vow of silence in protest. Her grandfather (Arkin) -- Richard's father -- is an old hippie with a heroin addiction.
The little road trip takes on some unexpected turns. Richard finds out his business partner Stan (Cranston) has canceled their deal. He gets into a big argument with Sheryl, while Frank is stuck in depression-land. Then something happens to grandpa and jeopardizes the whole trip. Finally, they arrive in Los Angeles and the family must learn to stick together for Olive's sake.
The cast works extremely well together. As Olive, Breslin (The Princess Diaries 2) is herself a little Miss Sunshine. Her cherubic chubbiness and affecting cheeriness are perfect qualities for the role. Kinnear (Invincible) is interesting as the straight man, the motivation guru who is quite a mess himself. Collette (The Night Listener) is impressively subdue as a character who tries to keep the family together but is not as strong as she seems.
Carell (The 40 Year Old Virgin) is suitably understated as the gay scholar who is clueless about life. Dano (Fast Food Nation) doesn't say much, but his grumpy expressions and broodiness is nonetheless hilarious. Arkin (Firewall) probably has the most fun playing the most outrageous character in the film, and he delivers.
Written by first-time scribe Arndt, Little Miss Sunshine is a cross between Napoleon Dynamite and National Lampoon's Vacation. Its quirky characters and funny circumstances strike a chord with the Sundance audiences. However, I think Arndt tries too hard to be peculiar, and in the process, the plot and the characters come off as somehow artificial. The characters hit all the marks on the quirk chart: neurotic mother, self-righteous father, brooding teenager, suicidal gay man, and a junkie grandfather; but sometimes they feel more like caricatures than real people.
The road trip plot has its hilarious, brilliant moments, and the dialogue is sharp. The VW microbus is itself a darn good character. However, part of the plot also feels contrived. For example, although they devote a whole scene to reveal the dysfunctional family's decision to take the trip, the scene just isn't all that believable. The ending almost seems too bizarre, but at the same time eerily familiar. We've all seen these pageants with little girls in heavy makeup and big hairs and frilly Las Vegas showgirl sequins. Ridiculous! Which leads us to realize how "normal" Olive and her family actually are compared to these circus freaks. That's the irony, and in that sense, the film is spot on.
Directed by Faris and Dayton (The Check Up), who are mostly known for their music video work, the film has a nice pace and a gritty look and feel to it. The acting is good across the board and the editing is tight. The storytelling in general hits all the right spots, but comes across as forced at times. We've seen the deserts, the rest stops, the crummy motels before. Most important, for some reason, I'm not sure what exactly the story is about. Yes, we have a road trip plot. Yes, it's about family. Yes, it's about dreams. Yes, it's about losing or winning or "who gives a bleep about what others think." But in some ways, the film lacks certain focus and at the end, we come out not knowing what to think. It's a nice, mostly entertaining little film, but I am not sure if it's as bright a sunshine as the Sundance crowd made it out to be.
Stars: Abigail Breslin, Greg Kinnear, Paul Dano, Alan Arkin, Toni Collette, Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston
Directors: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris
Writer: Michael Arndt
Distributor: Fox Searchlight
MPAA Rating: R for language, sex and drug content
Running Time: 101 minutes
Script – 6
Performance – 8
Direction – 7
Cinematography – 6
Editing – 7
Production – 7
Total – 7.2 out of 10