Movie Review: Little Miss Sunshine
FILM REVIEW: LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE
By Jessica Reaves
Chicago Tribune Staff Writer
"Little Miss Sunshine," the stellar feature debut from directors (and spouses) Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, takes a well-worn idea (stick a family in a vehicle - here a malfunctioning VW bus - for a few thousand miles and watch the sparks fly) and makes it new again. New, not to mention funny, thoughtful and deeply, viscerally satisfying. "LMS," it should be noted, prompted a standing ovation at last winter's Sundance Festival - a relatively rare occurrence.
A sardonic, deadpan, wonderfully understated script from first-timer Michael Arndt is given its due by a superlative cast. Greg Kinnear and Toni Collette are Richard and Sheryl Hoover, a couple barely holding it together in the suburbs of Albuquerque. She's overworked and exhausted, while he's an aggressively cheerful motivational speaker. Dwayne, Sheryl's teenage son from a previous marriage (played by Paul Dano), has taken a vow of silence and will only communicate via notepad. Richard's cantankerous father (the wondrous Alan Arkin) wears a fanny pack stocked with heroin. Meanwhile, Olive, the bespectacled, chubby 7-year-old daughter, practices her beauty pageant wave in the finished basement. Abigail Breslin, who plays Olive, is a revelation - last seen in "Signs," she brings an unstudied, unsaccharine sweetness to a role that could have easily gone very wrong.
When Sheryl's brother Frank (Steve Carell, demonstrating a heretofore underutilized gift for wryness) shows up at the house after an unsuccessful heartbreak-related suicide attempt, the radioactive family dynamic is complete. Just in time for a last-minute road trip to the Little Miss Sunshine pageant in Redondo Beach, Calif.
If none of this sounds particularly funny, that's kind of the point. "Sunshine" is possibly the least broad comedy of all time. Whatever the antithesis of falling-down, squeaky-nose humor may be, this is it in movie form. Everything about this family, and its way of dealing with life, is tight-faced and tightly wound, right up to the climactic, liberating scene (hint: it involves dancing).
It's difficult to convey the sheer joy of watching these characters interact. It's testament to the naturalness of Arndt's screenplay that this movie feels less like a scripted narrative and more like a spectacularly successful improv exercise. And the acting is, without exception, revelatory. Carell, as Frank, who enjoys referring to himself as "the country's most highly regarded Proust scholar," arrives on the scene reeling and almost speechless with despair, observing the family's interpersonal pyrotechnics with a blank-faced intensity usually reserved for zookeepers keeping tabs on captive monkeys. (Soon enough, he's nitpicking along with the rest of them.) Kinnear's Richard wears a tight grin at all times, spouting "motivational" clichés - from his "refuse to lose" speeches, which he delivers to tiny, unenthusiastic audiences - through gritted teeth. Toni Collette's open face and clear eyes broadcast every emotion, even those Sheryl probably would rather repress. I doubt there is a more gifted actor working today.
When the Hoover family finally descends on the inevitable ugliness of the beauty pageant, they've reached not only the end of the VW bus's life, but also the end of their collective rope. They have survived (well, most of them, anyway) shouting matches, a hospital visit and the accompanying "bereavement liaison," and a run-in with a libidinous cop. They've broken several traffic laws. They've learned a lot about themselves (especially Dwayne, much to his chagrin). They've discovered that banding together with the lunatics in your own family is the only way to survive the lunatics who populate the rest of the world - in other words, the usual, revelatory stuff.
What elevates this movie above its thematic peers is its refreshing and dogged refusal to ignore or sugarcoat the maddening nature of families, the ability of each member to provoke the others with laser-like precision. Dayton and Faris have clearly learned this much from their marriage: Only people you truly love can drive you to the brink of insanity. (If you're lucky, you'll take the trip in a yellow VW van).
"Little Miss Sunshine"
Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris; screenplay by Michael Arndt; photographed by Tim Suhrstedt, ASC; edited by Pamela Martin; music by Mychael Danna; production design by Kalina Ivanov; produced by Albert Berger, Ron Yerxa, Marc Turtletaub, David T. Friendly and Peter Saraf. A Fox Searchlight Pictures release; opens Friday, Aug. 4. Running time: 1:41. MPAA rating: R (language, some sex and drug content).
Richard - Greg Kinnear
Sheryl - Toni Collette
Frank - Steve Carell
Olive - Abigail Breslin
Dwayne - Paul Dano
Grandpa - Alan Arkin