The dysfunctional family comedy-drama has been a very prominent subgenre over the last few years, particularly in independent cinema. Many complain about its ubiquity, that these films are now substituting new quirks for innovation. But as with any genre, execution is what marks one of these films as worthy of existence, and Little Miss Sunshine features enough quality, wit, and heart to make it very worthwhile.
The Hoovers are struggling both financially and emotionally. Aspiring motivational speaker and dad Richard (Greg Kinnear) is obsessed with winning, much to the chagrin of wife Sheryl (Toni Collette), but she needs him to seize an impending big break for the good of the family. Teenage son Dwayne (Paul Dano) has taken a vow of silence, inspired by Nietzsche, and 7-year-old Olive (Abigail Breslin) dreams of winning the ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ pageant. When she unexpectedly becomes eligible, the family, a little reluctantly, piles into their battered combie van and drive to California with Richard’s sex-obsessed, heroin-snorting father (Alan Arkin), who loves Olive immensely and has helped her train, and Frank (Steve Carell), Sheryl’s gay academic brother who has just tried to kill himself and is now under the Hoovers’ care.
Little Miss Sunshine is mostly about seizing moments, finding life’s value in spontaneity and strange new paths. Arkin’s character embodies this philosophy, and Kinnear’s spends the film discovering it, finding that being determined to win is no guarantee of success, and that ‘success’ can be found in other avenues, which leads to the delightfully subversive climax at the pageant. Most of the characters are forced into a revelation that they will not meet their goals or they have fallen from the top, most painfully with Dwayne. But this is more nuanced than a simple ‘winning isn’t everything’ message, more informed and triumphant. And directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris and screenwriter Michael Arndt explore their message in hysterically funny ways that are both sweet and undermining of social norms. What the Little Miss Sunshine pageant actually turns out to be is the prime example of this, and it’s freakish.
The film has been a big success at the box office, and it’s easy to see why: it bridges the gap between mainstream and independent beautifully, shrugging off the excesses and pretensions of both to offer a gorgeous, accomplished movie, and it’s assisted by fine performances. Steve Carell gives a gentle but droll turn that further marks him as a major talent, crafting a funny, endearing character without the aid of comedic diatribes. Kinnear and Collette do their usual great work, although Sheryl is perhaps the least developed character of all, lacking her own subplot and largely just reacting to the others. Arkin is tremendous, as is Paul Dano in a performance powered by body language. And Abigail Breslin is just gorgeous as Olive, very driven despite adversity and the impact of her dad’s obsessive beliefs. Plus, the score is blissful using instrumental versions of poignant and exhilarating Devotchka songs that fit the tone of the story perfectly. It’s been trendy since Sundance to fall in love with Little Miss Sunshine, but it really deserves your affection.