Friday, December 29, 2006

Little Miss Sunshine

Directors: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
Starring: Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Steve Carell, Abigail Breslin, Paul Dano, Alan Arkin
Running Time: 101 min.

Rating: R

***1/2 (out of ****)

Little Miss Sunshine
could have been a complete disaster. The debut feature from the husband and wife team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, best known for their work on commericials and videos, walks a tightrope between comedy and drama. But they not only pull it off, it's funny, touching and features a couple of Oscar caliber performances, specifically one from a child actress which manages to avoid all the cliches associated with child performances. The indie comedy was one of the big successes to come out of the Sundance Film Festival last year proving that sometimes the folks at Sundance completely miss the mark and sometimes they get it right. This time they really got it right. It's the kind of movie that has to be an independent film because no major studio head would likely have the intelligence to realize it's the kind of movie that appeals to everyone despite its subject matter and off putting elements, which incidently are wielded seamlessly into the story.

This is also the kind of film that leaves you smiling long after you've seen it and proves they'll always be a market for smart films about real people with real problems. I have a feeling (and time will either prove me right or wrong on this) that this is the kind of movie you can go back and watch over and over again without ever tiring of it. It's a good comedy with lots of laughs for sure, but it's also sweet and cares about the quirky characters its depicting without being too obvious or syrupy about it. In a bad year for movies, this small gem really stands out as something special.

The Hoover family is messed up. Look up dysfunctional in the dictionary and you're likely to see their family photo. Dad Richard (Greg Kinnear) is an aspiring motivational speaker who lives by his own nine step program to avoid being a loser, even though he clearly is a big one. His wife, Sheryl (Toni Collette) is the glue that holds the family together. Their teenage son Dwayne (Paul Dano), idolizes Nietzsche and takes a vow of silence in his honor until he accomplishes his goal of earning his pilot license. Their 7 year-old daughter Olive (Abigail Breslin) obsessively watches beauty pageants on tv while dreaming of being a beauty queen herself. She recently placed pretty well in a local competition.

Fresh out of the mental hospital after a suicide attempt is Sheryl's brother Frank (Steve Carell), a former college professor who's life and career spiraled out of control after being jilted by his gay lover. Finally we have the horny, heroin snorting, foul-mouthed Grandpa kicked out of the retirement community. All these colorful characters are struggling to co-exist under Sheryl's roof until they get a call that Olive has been accepted into the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant in California. They load up the bright yellow VW van and they're off. What happens along the way I wouldn't dare spoil but let's just say it involves death, porno mags, ice cream, Rick James' "Superfreak" and a bunch of other fun stuff.

It may not be immediately obvious while watching, but it's really hard to make a movie like this. If it's too funny we can't take anything we're watching seriously, yet if it turns too somber it fails to be funny and becomes one of those feel good pretentious dramas. Let's face it, it's not exactly easy to make a comedy out of death, divorce, bankruptcy, depression, drug abuse, homosexuality, motivational speaking, Nietzsche, Proust and child beauty pageants. They strike a near-perfect balance and a lot of that has to do with the performances that humanize all these characters.

As Olive, Abigail Breslin never falls into the trap of being too cute or precocious. She plays it just right, which is tough to do if you're a child actor. She's the heart and soul of the movie. Paul Dano finds a way to give a deeply affecting performance as Dwayne despite the fact he remains mute nearly the entire film. He finds a way to convey more emotions through his silence and facial expressions than most actors do with pages of dialogue. When he finally does speak, and what causes him to, ends up being the most powerful, emotional scene in the whole film. Fans of Steve Carell will be shocked by his low-key work as Uncle Frank. This is a long way from The 40 Year-Old Virgin and he proves he has real chops as a dramatic actor if he ever chooses to go that route. I hope we see him in more roles like this. Toni Collette proves that she's slowly emerging as one of the most dependable actresses today, cornering what's becoming a shrinking market these days playing real, normal women with believable problems. Kinnear plays dad Richard well as a smug smart-ass in an ugly shirt while Alan Arkin is simply hysterical as he delivers every single line with perfect sarcasm, wit and timing. He steals every scene he's in with his misguided wisdom and advice about women and life, some of which is actually true and profound, in a weird dysfunctional sort of way.

If you think these people are disturbed wait until you see the parents and judges at The Little Miss Sunshine pageant that closes the film. Our protagonists, with all their issues, are perfectly well adjusted people in comparison. The horror of seeing 7 year-olds dressed and made up to look like swimsuit models is disturbing enough, but even more frightening is the presence of the host who looks strangely like JonBenet Ramsey murder suspect John Mark Carr. When one of the characters remark that "life is one fuckin' beauty contest after another" we understand and feel his frustration. The movie accomplishes the amazing by somehow making this horror of a pageant funny and entertaining, ending the movie on the right note without ever going too saccharine. Little Miss Sunshine is a cinematic juggling act that never drops the ball.

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