“Little Miss Sunshine” is absolutely spectacular. The road-trip genre and dysfunctional family genre are frequently used foundations upon which to build a script, but this movie breaks out of the cliché. The first feature from husband and wife directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris is armed with inspired characters and killer performances that have the x-factor that is missing from a ridiculously high percentage of modern cinema.
Talk about an ensemble, the cast deserves a tremendous amount of credit for the success of the storytelling and the comedy. No one is anything less than perfectly cast. Like a fine gourmet dish, all the components are balanced. With this particular bunch, the script could have been the ingredients on the side of a box of mac and cheese and still turned out watchable. Fortunately, the screenplay is as refreshing as the performances from this tour de force acting squad.
The list of solid performances from Greg Kinnear just keeps getting longer. From “As Good As It Gets” to “Auto Focus” to last year’s “The Matador,” Kinnear has proven he is capable of tremendous range. Like a William H. Macy or David Morse he has a next door neighbor quality- a guy you might know – that gives him cover for well-timed humor and quiet character moments that add up to a career of wicked smart acting. Kinnear and Toni Colette (“In Her Shoes”) are a convincing American couple trying to keep it all together.
In what is one of the finest modern portraits of teenage disillusionment, Paul Dano (“Fast Food Nation”) plays Duane, a fifteen-year-old with aspirations for the Air Force Academy whose obsession with Fredrick Nietzche finds him steadfast in a now nine month-long vow of silence. Dano is exceptional and delivers every look of exhausted disgust with clarity and conviction. There is a character arc with Duane that we don’t often see in teenagers of typical American comedies. Usually portraits of this kind of parental rejection have little nuance or control. Dano absolutely nails it, and I look forward to future roles.
Although the movement has swept the nation recently, I still haven’t jumped on the Steve Carell hayride. The American version of “The Office” pales in comparison to the original, “40 Year Old Virgin” lacked a center and focus, and then there’s the unforgivable impersonation of the uber-annoying Paul Lynn from the trivial feature update of “Bewitched.” I just haven’t seen the reason for all the fuss…until now. Carell plays Frank, Sheryl’s (Collette) brother, a prominent Proust scholar fresh from the hospital after attempting suicide who is picked up and immediately shown his new reality as nephew Duane’s roommate. Carell’s onscreen humiliation and despair are completely genius and ricochet marvelously off Dano’s angst.
To round out the company we have a heroin-snorting Grandfather played by Alan Arkin (“Glengarry Glen Ross”) and Abigail Breslin (“Signs”) who makes a big impression as eight-year-old beauty pageant hopeful Olive.
“Little Miss Sunshine” should be “the little movie that could” at the box office this summer. Without major studio hype it won’t blow down any weekend records, but word of mouth will make it a lasting hit and its coming at a time when audiences may be craving a break from massive Hollywood summer releases. It has an abundance of heart, and at its core a sincerity that I’m certain will resonate with wide audiences.
The cast, the script and the directors are all just about perfect and it simply works. There is magic where there is supposed to be magic, and there is a sincerity in the places where real people will recognize themselves. That is a quality which almost always goes missing in the glut of satisfactory and well-intentioned films.