A little over three months ago, a slight but enjoyable family film called "RV
" opened. In it, Robin Williams starred as a father who takes his emotionally distant family (much like Chevy Chase did in 1983's "National Lampoon's Vacation") on a road trip. Comic misadventures predictably ensued, but the family came out the other side with a rekindled close and loving bond. Add in some salty language, an attempted suicide, a gay uncle, a sudden death, a drug-addled grandfather, and a junior beauty pageant that would have even given JonBenet Ramsey nightmares, and the PG-rated "RV
" might look a whole lot like the R-rated "Little Miss Sunshine."
As the title suggests, the Little Miss Sunshine Pageant is the catalyst that takes a highly dysfunctional family on an 800-mile road trip from their home in New Mexico to California. The elated would-be competitor is 7-year-old Olive (Abigail Breslin), a chubby and unpoised sweetheart who has dreamt all of her short life for the chance to be in a pageant. Also onboard the ramshackle VW bus are Olive's unraveling parents Richard (Greg Kinnear) and Sheryl (Toni Collette), a heroin-using grandfather (Alan Arkin), intentionally mute teenage brother Dwayne (Paul Dano), and recently suicidal gay uncle Frank (Steve Carell). Their trip would be a nonevent without a few bumps along the way, and sure enough everything that could go wrong does. The destination at the end of their hellish journey is the pageant itself, which turns out to be more grotesque and exploitative than any of them could possibly expect.
Easy to see why it was an audience hit at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, "Little Miss Sunshine" is first and foremost a crowd-pleaser. The film is a dark comedywith such heavy aforementioned subject matter, this is a givenbut underneath the characters' pain and disappointments is a sunny disposition. Life can be rotten on occasion, but it's the only life you've got so you might as well make the most of it, married directing team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris seem to be saying. Indeed, the characters in "Little Miss Sunshine" are a flawed bunch with problems galore, but somehow the viewer can tell that they will be all right. As such, the tone remains reasonably light and, if its evoked thematic discomfort doesn't naturally elicit many belly laughs, the picture does produce some big smiles and numerous nods of recognition.
For at least half of its running time, the good intentions of "Little Miss Sunshine" are eclipsed by a propensity of plot contrivances in Michael Arndt's debut screenplay. Because Arndt and directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris are obviously reaching for a bit more substance than your typical silly road comedy, the characters come off too offbeat by a half and the hijinks aren't always believable. They also have overloaded a simple two-day trip with more life-changing events than the film can withstandaside from a death, there is also a revelation for one of the characters that they are colorblind and a subplot involving possible bankruptcy. Despite all of these plausibility stretches, the movie eventually shifts into focus and the characters and their naturalistic relationships begin to endear upon the viewer. By the time the climactic beauty pageant rolls aroundthis bitingly satirical and wickedly hilarious section is by far the high point, casting a merciless light on the hypocrisy of such garish eventsit has become an undeniable charmer.
There isn't a weak spot in the cast, and all of the actors' supremely fine performances are a large part in why the whole of the film works as well as it does. Making the biggest impression is 10-year-old Abigail Breslin (2004's "Raising Helen
"), who is such an irresistible and ultimately touching scene-stealer that end-of-the-year award consideration is fully warranted. Breslin has shown some acting skills in the pasther debut turn in 2002's "Signs
" was superbbut she comes into her own as a full-blown artist in "Little Miss Sunshine," rather than just a cute child actor. The adept intuitions she brings to portraying Olive rival the awe-inspiring depths of Dakota Fanning at that age. Also of special note are Steve Carell (2005's "The 40-Year-Old Virgin
"), underplaying to palpable, at times heartbreaking, effect as the undeservingly depressed Frank; Toni Collette (2005's "In Her Shoes
"), as loving mother Sheryl, who will do everything in her power to keep her family together; and Paul Dano (2004's "The Girl Next Door
"), as Dwayne, whose brooding teenage hostility has led him to a vow of silence.
With any film, it is better to start off rockily and finish well than to begin with promises that aren't kept. Such is the case of "Little Miss Sunshine," which flounders early on as it attempts to do too many things at once before gaining control of where its heart lies. Like 2004's "Napoleon Dynamite
," it is that rare independent film that has the capabilities to cross over into the mainstream. The core goalto present a self-destructing family in need of saving who learn to love, respect and accept each other exactly as they are, warts and allisn't earth-shatteringly novel, but it is a valuable moralistic tale all the same. To many audience members, "Little Miss Sunshine" will ring with truth amidst its zanier side. It is on this level that the film, blessedly absent of sugarcoating, garners one's affections and ultimately succeeds as more than just a distaff "Vacation" knockoff.