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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 21.01%
Just Average: 16.81%
Pretty Crappy: 2.52%
Sucks: 3.36%

9 reviews, 65 user ratings

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Little Miss Sunshine
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by Robert Flaxman

"Hit-and-miss 'Sunshine.'"
3 stars

After 100 minutes spent watching the sporadically amusing but frequently cringe-inducing Little Miss Sunshine, I tried to remember what the style reminded me of. Then it hit me: an Alexander Payne film. The depressing characters, the repeated iniquities visited upon them by the screenplay – it was all there. Believe me when I say that in no way do I intend the Payne comparison as a compliment.

First-time screenwriter Michael Arndt stocks his script with mostly pathetic characters, practically daring the audience to care about them in any fashion besides pity. Hoover family patriarch Richard (Greg Kinnear) is a would-be self-help guru whose life, unsurprisingly, fails to live up to the can-do program he teaches. (Our first shot of Richard is as he exhorts an unseen audience to go out into the world and be winners, which cuts to a shot from behind him to show that the audience is small and unmotivated, a wholly predictable reveal.) Son Dwayne (Paul Dano) has chosen not to speak until he achieves his goal of making the Air Force Academy. Grandfather Edwin (Alan Arkin) is foul-mouthed and addicted to heroin. Mother Sheryl (Toni Collette) has just brought home her brother, Frank (Steve Carell), who tried to commit suicide. Most crucially, seven-year-old Olive (Abigail Breslin) has just gained entrance to the finals of the Little Miss Sunshine pageant in California. The only problem is, the family lives in New Mexico.

Thus ensues a road trip on which each character is made either progressively more pathetic or dealt an increasingly worse hand, with only Olive – whose general obliviousness to other troubles makes her something of a family beacon – escaping relatively unscathed.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. When he first arrives at the Hoover house, Frank explains to Olive the exact sequence of events that led him to attempt suicide. Frank has devoted his career to the work of Marcel Proust, and ended up falling in love with one of his (male) grad students – who subsequently fell in love with Larry Sugarman, whom Frank describes as “the #2 Proust scholar in America” (with #1 being himself). Sugarman’s career took off while Frank’s went into a tailspin.

At first this just seems like extra background – slightly interesting but just sort of there. Arndt ends up using it to push Frank even further down, however, as later in the film Frank improbably runs into his former object of affection at a convenience store, naturally while purchasing pornography (for Edwin). Sugarman (also there, of course) laughs at Frank as he drives away. Later, Frank opens a newspaper to find an ad for Sugarman’s book that touts the latter as “the #1 Proust scholar in America.”

Naturally, this all seems very funny at first. But ultimately it’s incredibly mean-spirited. Arndt delivers humiliation after humiliation on Frank and on Richard (given a short side trip at one point just to get embarrassed), and throws Dwayne a curveball as well. One almost wonders what the point even is – why create characters you’re just going to spend an entire movie tearing down, especially if they barely even get a payoff? Frank’s cavalcade of humiliations seem shoehorned in, so little do they connect with the rest of the film and even the rest of the character’s behavior (he’s supposedly suicidal, yet multiple reminders of the reasons why he tried to kill himself elicit virtually no reaction).

But of course, Arndt and directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris also want to make the characters sympathetic and involving. It’s Alexander Payne Syndrome at its most acute – spend three-quarters of your movie making fun of your characters, but in that last quarter, work in as much sympathetic posturing as you can. It’s never worked for me in Payne’s films, and if it works in Little Miss Sunshine it’s only because Arndt doesn’t make the mistake of trying to assign the sympathy to Richard and Frank, but rather to Sheryl, Olive, and to a lesser extent Dwayne, characters far less beaten down by the film’s idea of humor.

Still, Little Miss Sunshine had me for a while – the family interaction scenes are at least amusing, and the debasement of Richard and Frank doesn’t become truly pernicious until the midway point or so. Unfortunately, at that point it decided to have a plot twist that was not only strange but completely unbelievable. The film was playing it rather realistically up to that point, and then it decided to throw all that out the window. The rest of the film then proceeds in a like fashion, with Arndt apparently trying to see just how zany he can go with the premise, abandoning most pretense of realism. Characters behave in ways that simply make little to no sense.

Stripped of its veneer of credibility, Sunshine lumbers to an awkward conclusion; the titular pageant ends up mostly an anti-climax, with the exception of a didactic dance number patently intended to show us how despite all the bickering, they’re still a family. It might be sweet if it weren’t so hokey and the scene so remarkably false, though at least it’s funny.

What is probably Sunshine’s best moment actually comes at the pageant, but it’s not a knee-slapper. The depiction of the pageant – seven-year-old girls being paraded around like livestock – is scathing, and appropriately so; I found myself shuddering involuntarily on several occasions. Olive’s “talent” program is inappropriate, the irony being that its only real difference from the rest of the contestants is its self-awareness in this regard. Perhaps if Dayton and Faris had made some sort of exposé on the junior beauty pageant industry, they could have produced a great film. Instead, they come out with a strong segment at the tail end of a cookie-cutter mediocrity.

There is plenty of potential in Little Miss Sunshine, but most of it evaporates in a cluster of overly-convenient humiliations. It works more frequently than it has much of a right to, mostly due to the quality of the actors involved and the filmmakers’ way with a decent emotional scene. If its comedy didn’t lean so heavily on degradation, Little Miss Sunshine might have been great; instead, it’s a marginal diversion that begins to decline in quality the second one gets a chance to start thinking about it.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=13577&reviewer=385
originally posted: 09/18/06 01:07:38
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2006 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

6/14/15 ER Great script, greater acting without a false note. 5 stars
6/02/10 User Name Smart, charming, and origianl; basically, it's all that Hollwood isn't.. 4 stars
8/06/09 Simon Funny, sincere, inspiring, well-acted... A rare complete dramedy 5 stars
8/01/09 Josie Cotton is a goddess for a truly great blend of black comedy and harsh reality see, something by Todd Solondz. 2 stars
7/09/09 the dork knight Why didn't the jurors just shut the music off? 4 stars
5/14/08 matt this movie's the bomb diggety! 5 stars
5/02/08 Pamela White real life can suck your dreams out of you. 5 stars
4/29/08 Mintaka A brilliant satire that lived up to all my high expectations. 5 stars
2/02/08 Anne I don't see many films more than once, but this one, I did 5 stars
12/06/07 Adrian A chick movie I liked! 4 stars
7/27/07 Alisa Ann I saw it last night, and it was a very good movie 5 stars
7/11/07 Hello Stranger abigail is awesome in this. so heartwarming this movie 5 stars
6/09/07 MP Bartley Just lovely. Superb ensemble acting. 4 stars
5/29/07 John A perfect blend of comedy with grim reality, hope with failure. 5 stars
5/01/07 Anthony One of the best films of 2006. An absolute gem of a movie. 5 stars
4/29/07 Tim thought is was bad smut, the worst, had to have no brain to write such junk. 1 stars
4/28/07 Geraldine Quirky, dysfunctional, hilarious, heartwarming 5 stars
3/21/07 G so cute-- even the most dysfunctional families CAN come together 4 stars
3/02/07 Ann I LOVED this movie! It really puts family life & sticking together in perspective =] 5 stars
2/28/07 Donny M Worst movie ever. 1 stars
1/27/07 Edith Tide Reasonably entertaining comedy, but Oscar noms. only highlight what a lean year 2006 was. 3 stars
1/23/07 dbx Predictable, contrived, cutesy. Should be called "Not Another Indie Movie" instead. 1 stars
1/22/07 bullit16 Very cute movie. Abigail Breslin is a star in the making. 4 stars
12/28/06 Phil M. Aficionado Liked it in spots, but clumsy overall and a bit offputtiing and hokey 3 stars
12/14/06 The Deadly Assassin The best comedy of 2006 !!! 5 stars
11/23/06 Sean Flat out Hilarious 5 stars
11/15/06 KC Absolutely charming, funny and touching film. Highly recommended. 5 stars
11/13/06 Mark Nice. heartfelt. I enjoyed it. 4 stars
10/20/06 Karan Above Perfect 5 stars
10/13/06 Eric Beautiful comedy. Only movie to ever make me cry from laughter and sadness. Perfect. 5 stars
10/12/06 John One for my All time fav. films - 5 stars
10/06/06 Laura Thoroughly impressed! Can't wait to watch it again! 5 stars
10/05/06 Kole Brilliant 5 stars
10/03/06 Monday Morning Wonderful ensemble and writing -- final product is a top-notch comedy. 5 stars
9/29/06 Hart Its heart-warming to know that Hollywood still comes out with such rare gems. A must watch. 5 stars
9/28/06 Bob Cather Sure to be on the top 10 movies of the year list. It is my # 1 pick 5 stars
9/27/06 Raj 5/5 - A rare film - Oscar material 5 stars
9/26/06 Dan Spent a perfect day wasting my time at this movie. 2 stars
9/26/06 Kristina Krumpfelhagen Better than most "disfunctional family on road trip" phliks. 4 stars
9/24/06 Clare M It has a bit of all of us in it...laughed 'till I cried 5 stars
9/20/06 Jesus Loved it, perfect. Great acting and I love Paul Dano. 5 stars
9/19/06 PD Excellent cast + performances; endearing and comedic, if a little over the top at times 4 stars
9/18/06 JAyb123 Fantastic, Best movie of the year thus far 5 stars
9/12/06 Bitchflaps Frovolous, mawkish schmaltz dressed up as a kind of Happy Shopper Royal Tenenbaums. 2 stars
9/11/06 pppppppp one of the worst movies I have ever seen. 1 stars
9/10/06 jcjs Alan Arkin, Greg Kinnear and all perfect fun, great show on many levels 5 stars
9/07/06 tony lacombe finally,a funny comedy!!!!! 5 stars
9/04/06 R.W.Welch Deftly done comedy underlayered with some pathos. Quite original. 5 stars
9/03/06 Yolanda Funny, kooky movie. Look for love in the craziness of your own family. It's there-hopefully 5 stars
8/31/06 Pn. Stop me before I laugh again! 5 stars
8/30/06 Killjoy How come Toni always does amazing films? She is a lucky mascot! 5 stars
8/27/06 Luisa Heart-warming, entertaining, funny flick...great actors! 5 stars
8/24/06 Suzz Very funny, well-acted, well-written film 5 stars
8/19/06 Bill Outstanding movie!! Can't wait to see it again. 5 stars
8/18/06 Ekkostar Worth it if Bryan Cranston is somewhere in it. 4 stars
8/16/06 nancy n pretty unrealistic, but pretty charming nontheless 4 stars
8/15/06 Josh Jolcover amazing piece of work, funny, yet dramatic, great acting 5 stars
8/13/06 Heather Dry, satirical look at the "American Dream" 5 stars
8/12/06 Mase Nice refreshing summer flick!! Toni Collette is surely one of the best actressess out there 5 stars
8/06/06 Mark A screwball comedy with a heart 4 stars
7/26/06 Andrea Bloom Best comedy I've seen in a long, long time. 5 stars
7/19/06 Irma Ecksel A delight, both funny and lots of pathos. 5 stars
5/19/06 JP BEST MOVIE AT SUNDANCE I ONLY SAW 2 thought 5 stars
1/23/06 Ellen James Amazing movie and great cast, it is perfect! Keeps you laughing the whole way through! 5 stars
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  26-Jul-2006 (R)
  DVD: 19-Dec-2006



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