If the quirky little indie comedy “Little Miss Sunshine” would have been made inside the Hollywood studio system, some studio executive somewhere would have suggested that the directors insert the Rolling Stones song “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” during the film’s cathartic finale. The title would have been changed to something more easily marketable like “Winners and Losers,” and the pitch-perfect cast would instead feature bland family comedy A-listers like Tim Allen and Robin Williams.
Thankfully, directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris did not go that route, because in this film the casting is as important as the story. The screenplay, written by Michael Arndt, is chock full of moments that carry the familiar scent of other pictures, most notably the middle of “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” and the ending of “About a Boy.” But before all that, “Little Miss Sunshine” does something that most comedies these days don’t often do. It takes its time introducing the characters.
|“Holiday Ro-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oad, Holiday Road”|
Greg Kinnear is Richard Hoover, a father driven to succeed with his own 9-step self-help program that’s ready to roll out across the counrty– if he could only get somebody to buy it. Not yet the “winner” his plan says he should be, Richard desperately tries to practice what he preaches. When it doesn’t work out for him, he puts on a brave face and takes his frustrations out on his family.
His wife Sheryl, played by Toni Collette, wishes Richard would stop preaching to them and spend more quality time with his children—Dwayne, the introverted son (Paul Dano) who has taken a vow a silence until he’s able to join the Air Force Academy, and Olive (Abigail Breslin), a chubby seven-year old who yearns to be a beauty queen. Olive has been working on her dance routine for an upcoming pageant with her grandfather (Alan Arkin), who snorts heroin and has a mouth like a sailor. Sheryl’s brother Frank (Steve Carell), a gay Proust scholar who recently attempted suicide after being jilted by a lover, is dumped into the already calamitous household on a strict suicide watch.
There’s nothing more insulting for uber-intellectual Uncle Frank than to be subjected to the indignity of a Hoover family inquisition over the dinner table, but that’s just what happens, as the parents debate how much of his life is too inappropriate to tell young Olive. This key scene, early in the film, establishes characters that could have come across as artificial in lesser hands. Each person is drawn clearly and, despite their imperfections, are all very likable. From then on out, we root for the Hoover clan, through all of their hardships and ridiculous situations, and against all odds.
The family piles in to an old VW bus that’s seen better days, and heads to California to chase Olive’s dream, one that becomes more and more unliklier as time goes by. On the way, as road trip movies are bound to go, each of them is made to question their own hopes and priorities. With an all-too-familiar premise, though, “Little Miss Sunshine” wrings some of the funniest character-driven comedy since “Sideways.”
|Nobody smiling = funny movie|
The best ensemble cast of the year pulls all the recognizable humanity out of these types, turning them into fully realized characters. When the inevitable moment comes where the family leaves somebody behind without realizing it, it feels pretty organic, and not like some one-note joke pulled out by a desperate screenwriter for some cheap laughs. Carell is the closest to a straightforward comedian out of any member of the cast, and yet he wisely doesn’t play for laughs. Like the other actors, he finds the humor in the characters and doesn’t engage in the kind of hammy mugging we might have gotten if Allen or Williams had been cast.
“Little Miss Sunshine” realizes that life never works out the way you expect, and that there is nothing you can do but embrace it. Arndt’s story itself is unique enough in its lighthearted treatment of such serious topics as drug use, pornography, career failure, and suicide. As much as some of the plot elements feel recycled, “Little Miss Sunshine” doesn’t always take the obvious route, as evidenced by the song that is actually playing during the film’s climactic scene. It may have a mildly confusing title and carry an R-rating, but it is also the most heartfelt family comedy of the year.