People keep saying that Abigail Breslin (she was also in Signs) steals this film. That’s not exactly accurate. Yes, she’s the main character of Little Miss Sunshine, and the film begins and ends with her. Her wide-eyed fascination with beauty pageants – so cleverly shown in the opening scene, and her off-the-wall talent performance at the pageant at the end of the movie establish a sweet, vulnerable, lovable character, Olive. But don’t for a second forget Olive’s dysfunctional, outrageous family – who manage to both support and let her down in one phrase. They are all supposed to be background (probably in the script they were), but when you have Toni Collette, Steve Carell, Greg Kinnear and Alan Arkin in the same room – they’re anything but background. I’m glad that the camera stayed on them a little longer, and the editor left them in more scenes. Otherwise, you’d get a feeling their talents were wasted. This is an amazing ensemble effort, for a film where it’s not necessary – the story tells itself quite easily.
Little Miss Sunshine is about a dysfunctional family trying to come together to help their youngest member to achieve a dream. It’s not a livelong dream – Olive is about nine years old, and she wants to be in a beauty pageant. The problem is she lives with weirdos – one weirder than the next. Their communications are so bad, it seems they are complete strangers on some topics. Her dad Richard (Greg Kinnear) is a motivational speaker who’s desperately trying to promote his system and publish a book. Then there is her older brother Dwayne (Paul Dano) who’s taken a vow of silence until he successfully passes a pilot’s exam. He also hates everyone. He underlines the word “everyone”. Olive’s grandpa (Alan Arkin) is shooting heroin for kicks, sleeps around and gives unsolicited advice (and criticism) on any subject – cooking meals, going out, earning money, having sex, etc. He’s not just a grump – he’ll go out of his way to sneak in “I told you so”. Early in the movie, Olive’s uncle Frank (Steve Carell) moves in – he’s just tried to commit suicide – his lover left him for another man, a man more prominent in literary world. A professional nemesis. Insert a smarmy gay remark from Grandpa, and a paternal, rationalizing phrase from Richard. Guess who’s holding this family together – Sheryl (Toni Collette), literally running around these men, feeding them, providing shelter, and support. Sheryl is just about to lose it, and collapse on the floor.
The movie quickly settles into a classic road trip formula, when Olive is invited to participate in a beauty pageant, and being on tight budget, the family decides to get into a VW van and drive across the country. This formula immediately gets a bizarre twist, as they discover the van needs a new part, and until it’s repaired there is no way to start it unless you’re pushing it. From then on, every time they need to take off, everyone gets out of the van and begins to push, and one-by-one jump in as it speeds up. This hilarious sequence never loses its comic timing, but as the plot progresses, it gains urgent, tragic, hopeless and escapist undertones. You’d think something like that would get stale on second try, but not in this film. We want them to get into the van, and to arrive safely. More importantly, the movie wants it too. Despite the massive communications gaps, the film wants the family to stay together, and to find common ground.
As the family moves across the country, they learn to cope with each other’s quirks, accept their flaws and embrace their strengths. This has been done so many times, so why does this movie feel so fresh and comfortable? Perhaps the soundtrack, adding to their frustrations with every highway; perhaps the camera that wanders from face to face even if the characters are not delivering any lines; perhaps the actors like Kinnear, Carell and Collette who can deliver entire monologues just with their eyes. Little Miss Sunshine never plays it just for laughs, and never puts down any of its inhabitants for a quick zinger. It’s very savvy in its observation of a family, a family on the road, and a family in trouble on the road. We recognize our own families in them, and yet don’t want to be in those situations. It’s sweet and daring at the same time.
While on the road, Olive and Grandpa keep practicing their routines – for the talent competition. Richard and Sheryl are trying not to have a fight in public over his obsession with success. Frank and Dwayne are having conversations where one asks and the other one writes notes, or just rolls eyes. Early on, at the dinner table, this was a good way to establish characters. As they are speeding on the highway, these issues become more urgent, more desperate. The movie builds up to its final stage, as everyone enters the world of beauty pageants. Scene after scene is a vicious send-up of the beauty culture, and obsession with award shows. Those 20 minutes would make a great, brutal documentary. Still, the movie aims higher. It culminates with Olive’s performance, and the reaction she gets from her family members and onlookers. It’s an honest, (a little too honest, perhaps) look at what it is we dream about, and how we achieve those dreams.
A spectacular cast, great road trip, and a vicious attack on the pageantry in our culture. Also sweet and painfully familiar to all of us with families. You cannot miss it.