“Little Miss Sunshine”, the new independent comedy, is that rare thing. A comedy that works. And works consistently. It is a delightful film filled with memorable performances, in one case, the actor’s best performance. I honestly can’t think of a bad thing to say about this gem. You should rush out to see it.
Sheryl (Toni Collette) hurries to the hospital to pick up her brother, Frank (Steve Carell). The doctor would prefer he stay there, but they don’t have the insurance to pay for his recovery. Frank just lost his job, his apartment and his boyfriend, so he tried to commit suicide. As he later observes, yet another failure. Sheryl brings him to the family home in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He will share a room with Dwayne (Paul Dano), Sheryl’s teenaged son who is in month 9 of a self-enforced vow of silence. He later tells his uncle, through a written note, he isn’t talking because he hates everyone. Uncle and nephew have to share a room together; Frank can’t be left alone and there isn’t room anywhere else in the crowded house. Sheryl’s second husband, Richard (Greg Kinnear), a budding Dr. Phil, preaches his ‘revolutionary’ “9 Steps To Success” program to half empty community college classrooms as he waits for a big book contract. Grandpa (Alan Arkin) also lives with the family, after his eviction from the retirement community, preferring to live out his last years as he wants, having sex, doing drugs and saying whatever he wants. Sheryl and Richard’s little girl, Olive (Abigail Breslin) is a budding beauty queen and spends every available moment with Grandpa working on her routine for any upcoming beauty contest. One night, they receive a call. Olive will be able to participate in the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant in Redondo Beach. That means one thing. The family is going on a road trip.
“Little Miss Sunshine”, written by Michael Arndt (his first film) and directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (who previously worked on music videos for REM and Janet Jackson), is a delightful comedy. It creates genuine moments of laughter and also manages to tell a touching story. Every single moment seems to fit with every other moment, so if you aren’t laughing during a particular scene, there is a very believable reason for this. “Sunshine” is all the more amazing because it is the first film from these people to hit the multiplex screens. The film is rolling out slowly and will add new screens each week. Keep an eye out for it.
“Sunshine” caused a bit of a stir at the last Sundance Film Festival. After screenings, Fox eventually paid $10.5 million for the distribution rights, a lot of money to pay for a film at Sundance, but they clearly saw something special in it.
The key to this film is that it was initially made outside of the studio system. The directors, writers and actors were free to create a film as they saw fit, how they felt it worked. I guarantee you the creative process was a lot more streamlined because they had fewer people to add their two cents and ‘suggest’ changes and fiddle with the end product. The writer and directors have created a lively, interesting, funny film about a family falling apart at the seams. The opportunity for Olive to participate in the Little Miss Sunshine pageant serves as an opportunity to bring them together, but there is too much bad history in their lives. The road trip brings them together, to a certain degree, but also serves to naturally expose their problems to an even greater degree. In a studio film, we would most likely see the family members make some sort of phony resolution. In “Sunshine”, the story progresses naturally to its surprising conclusion. Yes, I know it seems odd to say natural and surprising in the same sentence, but it works in this film. Once we see what is happening in the resolution, everything just fits. Its hilarious, but human and we can honestly say the family does the right thing.
The majority of “Sunshine” takes place during the family’s road trip from New Mexico to Redondo Beach, California in an old yellow VW bus. As they travel along the highway, watching every penny, much of the humor derives from their close, confined proximity. The film also manages to revisit comedy bits, using the same joke, but making it slightly different each time. This makes us all the more receptive to the laughter because we are able to anticipate when a laugh might be coming, yet the filmmakers change it and make it unexpected, making it even more funny.
The cast is universally excellent. Toni Collette is very good as Sheryl, the mother of the family. She is the least funny of the group, but her role is invaluable, she is the glue holding the group together. She makes sure everyone is moving together, trying to keep everyone on the same page, yet she is a modern day mom and is pulled in many directions at once. Rushing from her job to the hospital, she walks in to see her brother still wearing her work uniform. She didn’t have time to change or even think about it. On the way home, she picks up dinner, a bucket of fried chicken and all of the sides. As the family sits down to dinner, she plops a salad on the table and starts to open a bottle of soda pop, asking if everyone wants some. Throughout, she provides support and encouragement, but isn’t beyond having an argument or a disagreement with her family.
Greg Kinnear is also very good as Richard, the budding self-help guru. This is easily Kinnear’s best performance to date. Richard is always living his self-help program and finds it difficult to turn the switch on or off when he is dealing with his family. In one hilarious scene, he starts to impose his self-help teachings on young Olive, as the family sits at a diner, enjoying breakfast. Despite the warnings from everyone at the table, he continues to persist, slipping little comments in. As we learn more about his character, we begin to see little cracks in his armor; he seems awfully desperate for that book deal to happen, he seems like he will crack at any moment due to problems with the car. It is a funny, funny performance showing a man at the edge of his rope.
Steve Carell is, as always, very funny. Frank is a man with little to hope for, so he is very low key. Yet, he isn’t beyond telling anyone and everyone that he is the Number One Proust Scholar in the Country, despite he no longer holds a position as a professor. Even without the job, I guess the title still holds. It is also amusing to find that his rival, the Number Two Proust Scholar in the Country is the catalyst of Frank’s current problems. Through much of the film, Frank stares at his family like they are aliens from another planet. How did he get himself into this situation? Then there are moments when he simply can’t take it anymore and responds in a sarcastic fashion to a family member’s ramblings.
Paul Dano is very good as Dwayne, the sullen teenager who hates everyone in his family. His role is very difficult because he doesn’t speak for a long period, everything he experiences has to register in his facial expressions and body language. Naturally, as a teenager, he doesn’t emote a lot, but when he does, we feel it. He seems real, interesting, unusual and believable.
Alan Arkin is easily the star of the group. As Grandpa, he has a lot of habits that he doesn’t feel the necessity to cover up. He talks openly and frankly about sex, imploring Dwayne to have sex with as many women as possible, he’s young, and he should be having a lot of sex, experiment. He also has less acceptable habits involving drugs, but he doesn’t really care to hide those very much either. Because he is so frank and open, he almost becomes a sort of Greek chorus, providing a reality check for all of the madness his family creates.
Abigail Breslin is a real find as Olive, the little girl who has a dream of becoming a beauty queen. She is simply perfect as a child who is sheltered, yet inquisitive. When her Uncle Frank arrives, she asks about his situation and after a little bit of a disagreement, he tells her. Yet, because she doesn’t fully understand, it doesn’t really bother her.
When the family finally arrives at the pageant, Olive is nervous because she is about to fulfill a lifelong dream. Yet, she is also entirely uninhibited and doesn’t realize how different she is from the freakish Jon Benet Ramsey look-a-likes she is competing against. Olive is an endearing character and Breslin does a great job.
Do I really need to say more? Hasn’t this love letter already convinced you?
Go already. Buy your ticket.