Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
Bill Long 9/18/06
Even A Stellar Cast Can't Redeem This One
The recently-released film Little Miss Sunshine played to rave reviews at the Sundance Film Festival and has been racking up accolades since it hit the screens a few months ago. It is easy to see the appeal of the film, for it features a star-studded cast which together make up a dysfunctional family on a 800-mile journey in a rickety yellow VW bus from NM to Los Angeles to watch the daughter, seven year-old Olive, participate in a kiddie beauty/talent contest. Opportunties for slapstick and comedic irony abound when you know the peculiarities of each family member, but the combination of all these types seemed just a bit too ridiculous for me. Here is the lay of the land.
The man of the family is middle-aged Richard Hoover, a wannabe motivational speaker who, instead of finding success in marketing his nine step plan to a winning life, is brushed off by his agent after the agent is unable to sell the "product." In Richard Hoover's (Greg Kinnear) simplistic life there are winners and losers; attitude is everything; you achieve and even bring about your success by positive energy and resolute determination. His long-suffering wife, Sheryl (Toni Collette), is not much of anything in the film except a long-suffering wife. Yet her side of the family also carries a great deal of the plot because joining the family on the trip to Los Angeles is Sheryl's recently fired college-professor brother, Frank (Steve Carell). Frank proudly touts himself as the nation's foremost Proust scholar, but he has had a disastrous love affair with one of his (male) graduate students, and the graduate student is now shacking up with what Frank considers the nation's second-best Proust scholar. Frank has attempted suicide as a result of the combination of being fired and rejected, but you never get the feeling in the film as if Frank is ever in any danger from himself or anyone else.
Filling out the cast are Richard's father (Alan Arkin), who is a down-to-earth man who spouts profanities with the frequency of his son's optimistic drivel, and the one who truly is oppressed by the family dynamics: teen-age son, Dwayne (Paul Dano). Dwayne has taken a vow of silence nine months ago for reasons that are mentioned (so he can focus on getting into the Air Force Academy), but this vow really make no sense. Nevertheless, he is shown reading books of 19th-century angst-filled philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (Thus Spake Zarathustra, for example). Finally, there is the star of the show, little Olive (Abigail Breslin), who has just learned that she will be participating in a national kid beauty contest because the local NM winner had to forfeit her crown.
So it isn't difficult to imagine, with this zany array of characters, all the kinds of mishaps that might befall the travelers. The travel genre, of course, is a classic one for people to discover themselves, kill people or do all kinds of things that are socially marginal. Thus, we are treated to scene after scene of varying degrees of humor, sprinkled witih mostly vain attempts to become serious. I will freely admit that I laughed out loud at one predicament--how to deal with the body of Grandpa, who had died apparently of a drug overdose in his hotel room the neight before Olive's "big contest." Finally, they decided to wrap him in a sheet, throw him in the back and proceed at breakneck pace to the hotel in Redondo Beach, which they couldn't reach without many vehicle code violations and leaving a widespread swath of destruction in their wake.
But as the movie wears on, there are some developments in the characters. The most significant one is in son Dwayne, who finally opens his mouth (it really didn't take that long) when he discovers his color-blindness on the trip and is told that he would be unable to get into the Air Force Academy with color blindness. His primal screams of pain quickly lead to the suicidal Proust scholar taking a more major role in Dwayne's life to tell him, eventually, how Proust himself was a screw up in almost everything he did but is now regarded as a famous writer. One only wished that significant scholars and thinkers weren't just thrown into the movie for a vague intellectual appeal but that something from each of these greats (Proust and Nietzsche) would have formed more of the basis of the family's coming to grips with the changes in their lives. But Proust is mentioned only once in seriousness and Nietzsche not at all.
The family is making the trip for the sake of little Olive. She fits not at all into the plastic, dolled up, pencil-thin culture of beauty contests, but decides to go through with her talent performance after all. This performance, taught her by her now deceased Grandpa, ends up being the instrument through which the family rediscovers its love for each other, for they learn that it is not the rules set by outsiders or others that should control their lives and understanding of self but rather the commitment to each other and to one's own gifts and quirkiness.
The film had some welcome light moments. I liked the way that motivational-speaker dad was gradually forced to face the fact that he was as screwed up as everyone else. I liked the comedic scenes in dealing with the "dead body" of Grandpa. I didn't even mind the stereotyping of beauty contest contestants, hosts and judges. But I think you can tell a lot about our culture by what makes it laugh. Today it doesn't really take much for us to become uproariously engaged in a farcical piece. The fact that so many people have derived such seeming delight from Little Miss Sunshine is an indication to me that our lives are too dull and that we work too hard. We seek the release that MNF and movies like Little Miss Sunshine can provide.
So as not to give the impression that I dont appreicate a good laugh and well-done humor, I think the film could have been massively improved through character development of Sheryl, through bringing the philosophers more closely into the story line of the work, through having Richard face up to his own failings, too. That is, humor would have been deepened, rather than truncated, by showing the way that it can exist and even flourish in the midst of human irony. Indeed, the hugs and high-fives at the end would have been a little more convincing if they family had come to a realization through it all that social conventions and expectations really undo our lives more than unrich them. I think that was the "point" of the movie, but it wasn't well portrayed.
All in all, however, it was an enjoyable two hours out of one's life. I still am longing, I suppose, for a comedy that explores life and its ironies, and gets us laughing and crying all at once. Little Miss Sunshine, for all its hype, won't do this for you.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long