Thursday, August 24, 2006

Little Miss Sunshine

Little Miss Sunshine
Fox Searchlight; 2006
Rating: 9.4

Alan Arkin as Grandpa
Abigail Breslin as Olive
Steve Carell as Frank
Toni Collette as Sheryl
Paul Dano as Dwayne
Greg Kinnear as Richard

Directors: Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris
Producer: Michael Turtletaub (& others)
Writer: Michael Arndt

This movie has been on the horizon for quite a long time – it’s taken over five years to make; Focus Features was involved until 2004 before it backed out; and Turtletaub finally had to agree to back much of the film on his own, after initially paying $250,000 for the script in the first place. However, having seen this movie on the first night that it was open nationally, I must declare, quite definitively, that the wait has been very much worth it. Little Miss Sunshine, without a singular doubt, is one of the most creative and substantive movies that I have seen in many years. In fact, I’m going to go as far as to openly state that this movie (along with the recently-released-on-DVD, but hardly-seen-in-theaters Brick) just may have restored my faith in the existence of truly original screenplays in the cinematic world.

One of the things that struck me most in this movie was how deftly intertwined the highly-individualized storylines of the six main characters were. Most screenwriters, when employing ensemble casts, quite often still find ways to focus upon two or three primary characters, no matter how many people the publicists claim are intimately involved in the story (with a good example being Love Actually, though I do really enjoy that movie). So many of these flicks leave viewers wanting to know more about their favorite minor character, but, because there is a time issue involved in film-making, there’s always at least one character’s personality that has to be diminished and/or their little bit of story never finds fulfillment or resolution.

However, in Little Miss Sunshine, each of the characters has their own personality, their own struggles, and their own issues, and they do whatever they can to keep the others out of their lives. The opening scenes, especially the one at dinner, are filled with comedic, yet painful tension, as this family threatens to split open at the seams. This all occurs to the dismay of Sheryl, the hard-working and hard-smoking Mom, who’s perpetually frustrated by her family’s hurt and is portrayed by Toni Collette. She’s an “Every-Mom,” standing in the gap, doing her best to love the four men in her life, who each addresses their personal sorrows in drastically different ways. Sheryl serves as the center of this family in two distinct manners: she is the fulcrum around which many of the plot machinations revolve and is also the foundation of a shaky house, doing whatever she can to shore up the wobbling walls of her family, but still feeling like a failure at the same time.

Greg Kinnear (in a stellar performance) plays an aspiring writer and motivational speaker who is struggling to find his place in the high-stakes world of pop psychology and intensely dislikes and loathes the other 3 males living in his house, openly calling them “losers.” His mute-by-personal-choice son, Dwayne (Paul Dano as one of the more truly serious, yet appropriately angst-filled teens you’ve seen on screen in awhile) is trying to gain permission to obtain his pilot’s license and enter the Air Force Academy, so that he can leave behind a family he can’t stand; Alan Arkin plays the horny, wizened, and smack-addicted Grandpa, who feels stuck in his old age and thus instigates pointless arguments with Richard, his son; and Uncle Frank (portrayed by Steve Carell, in his best performance in anything – ever) is a college professor who specializes in the works of the French author Marcel Proust and who recently attempted suicide because one of his male graduate assistants spurned his romantic advances. Four men – each approaching life in different ways, all viewing their world with divergent sets of lenses – are thrown together into one family and make no attempt to live in any kind of harmony.

However, even with strong and skilled performances by the five adults in the film, the true star is Olive (Abigail Breslin), the awkwardly adorable daughter of Richard and Sheryl, whose primary goal in life is to become a beauty pageant winner. And because of this aspiration of hers, she spends a great of time watching her vast collection of old beauty pageants, trolling for any and all tips that will help her in her quest. Moreover, in what could have been a purely comic role, filled with opportunities to lampoon anyone who’s ever been involved in the hellishness that is the beauty pageant life, Olive becomes everyone’s muse. She is not some cheesy, inspirational character that everyone eventually looks upon as some sort of fantastical representative of idealized childhood in hopes of finding his or her personal source of redemption. In many ways, Olive is the most mature and immature member of the family – she remains strong and focused upon her goal, even in the face of family tragedy, despite the fact that, all the while, her “adult” focus is upon the naïve idea of becoming a beauty queen. Nevertheless, it is Olive’s quest that eventually brings the family together to achieve a common goal; it is Olive who is the recipient of the family’s efforts to finally become a family.

I can’t really find very much to quibble with in Little Miss Sunshine, as in no way does the writer rest upon cliché or formula when presiding over the direction of this family’s life. Oh, the standard plot components are there – the troubled teen who doesn’t like his parents; the parents who fight over money and purpose; the young daughter who doesn’t understand the adult world around her; and the random, quirky, eccentric family members who only bring problems to the house – but this movie works; it really works. Little Miss Sunshine is filled with a captivating mixture of humor, pathos, anxiety, stress, laughs, tears and surprisingly deep spirituality, including a few revelatory instances that literally choked me up at the depth of their insight into the human condition that plagues us all. And all the while, the family’s journey is contained in a dirty, broken-down, yellow VW bus, accompanied by bits and pieces of “Chicago” by Sufjan Stevens. See if this film doesn’t find you “… crying, in a van, with my friends.”


Blogger Questing Parson said...

How refreshing, these days, to hear of someone who saw a movie that one would recommend others see.

Can't wait to get to the theater.

Thanks for the review.

Thursday, August 24, 2006 9:17:00 PM  

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