Little Miss Sunshine

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 08/18/06 01:48:57

"Great cast saves the day."
3 stars (Just Average)

Watching “Little Miss Sunshine”, I found myself swept up in its parade of big, naughty laughs, twisted characters, and oddball situations. But as time passed, I’ve cooled quite a bit on the film - I still admire the comic potential, and it’s hard to find a tighter cast featured on the indie circuit at the moment, but there’s this sense of trying-way-too-hard that’s since soured me on the whole thing. Here’s a film constructed with all energy spent entirely on its being as quirky as possible, a film desperate to tell you how good it is. Which gets fairly annoying after a while.

The film is written by Michael Arndt, a newcomer, and directed by the team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, veterans of music videos and commercials making their feature debut. Which feels just about right - “Sunshine” is both overly written and overly directed. There’s nothing here that feels natural, be it the dialogue or the delicate precision of camera placement, and it’s more like a student’s idea of what a smart movie must be instead of a genuine article. The lack of authenticity crushes the film, as it all keeps forcing the eccentricities upon the story, instead of merely letting the story play out in its own affectionately idiosyncratic way.

But in another way, it helps the film. “Sunshine” is a gorgeously crafted effort, every shot being a nice treat for the eyes. It may lack any natural core, but it still sucks you in with the directors’ elegant knowledge of screen composition.

Of course, you can argue that it’s all window dressing framing nothing. And you’d just about be right. The story here is familiar, overblown, and strangely shallow: a family of misfits, each at a stage of personal crisis, finds themselves crammed in the family VW minibus (VW minibus = kooky, apparently), making their way cross-country, when the young daughter gets accepted into a beauty pageant, her six-year-old lifelong goal.

The family consists of:

- Father Richard (Greg Kinnear), a self-help guru who’s constantly injecting his own useless catchphrases into conversation. He preaches about how winning is everything. The journey will teach him otherwise.

- Young Olive (Abigail Breslin), who worships beauty queens and longs to be one herself. The journey will teach her otherwise.

- Big brother Dwayne (Paul Dano), who has taken a vow of silence (yet continues to communicate via scribbles on a notepad) until he gets into the Air Force. He hates his family. The journey will teach him otherwise.

- Mom Sheryl (Toni Collette), who’s had it with this ridiculous family. The journey will teach her otherwise.

- Sheryl’s brother Frank (Steve Carell), a gay Proust scholar recovering from a suicide attempt when failures both professional and romantic left him certain that life is worth losing. The journey will etc., etc.

- Richard’s grumpy father, known only as Grandpa (Alan Arkin), who cusses like a sailor and makes no effort to hide his love for pornography. Refreshingly, the journey teaches him nothing. Not so refreshingly, it’s his job to help teach everyone else.

It’s a jumble of coming of age, dysfunctional family, and road trip dramedy, and the only thing separating it from all the other stories just like it is the quirk angle. Yet the whole thing is too staged to truly click. Consider Dwayne’s vow of silence. It’s supposed to be connected to his habit of reading heavy philosophy, yet the constant note-writing (doesn’t even secondary communication like that violate the oath anyway?) is too contrived, as if the filmmakers were all keen on the idea of how cool it would be to have one character just write stuff down. (Indeed, it’s become the big hip thing of the film, as Dwayne’s notepad writings have been turned into advertising in the sense of the movie’s poster campaign.) Rather than come up with anything that might help form the characters as people, we get stuff like this, which forms them as types.

And when the movie switches into full-on satire mode, it lacks enough real bite. It aims at easy targets - self-help twits, beauty pageant freaks - and only uses them to bolster the movie’s “it’s OK to be different as long as you’re happy” message (which gets driven home in all the wrong ways in a finale that, while pretty funny, is also pretty lame, story-wise). True study of family interaction is replaced by broad, rough yuks.

And yet “Sunshine” ultimately works; after all, as already mentioned, it’s very easy to get swept up in the whole mess, as it’s very, very funny. I’ll credit Arndt for whipping up some deft one-liners and zany situations, but I’ll credit the cast more for pulling the whole thing together. This is one gifted line-up, all of them experts in balancing comedy and drama (even Carell, previously known only for comedy, and even the kids, who hold their own and then some against such heavyweight grown-ups), and their knack for timing and interplay gets the most laughs out of every gag. They also believe deeply in their characters, breathing them to life and managing the almost impossible task of giving all of this silliness some serious weight. By diving headfirst into their roles, this ensemble ignores the intentional askew feel to the picture and plays everything honestly.

The result is a mess of a movie that’s full of itself and too eager to show off, yet winds up endearing and enjoyable anyway thanks to the efforts of a powerful cast. It’s not the delight it could have been had the filmmakers toned down the indie vibe a few notches, but it’s still a nice treat. If you want to see how an exceptional group of actors manages to save a movie from itself, this is the one.

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