Reel Opinions

Friday, August 25, 2006

Little Miss Sunshine

It's funny how a continued downward spiral of a certain genre can make you forget how good a formula once was. In this case, Little Miss Sunshine is the savior of the road trip comedy, a genre that has not seen a truly memorable entry since the 1987 John Hughes classic, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. After a series of forgettable entries (the most recent being the Robin Williams stinker, RV), Little Miss Sunshine is a much needed shot of intelligence and maturity. Bittersweet, honest, sometimes sad and often consistently funny, this is not only the best example of the genre in years, but also one of the best films of 2006.

The film covers a weekend in the life of a dysfunctional family as they drive cross country from New Mexico to California to attend a junior beauty pageant. The young hopeful who inspires the trip is 7-year old Olive (Abigail Breslin), a chubby yet spirited little girl who studies adult TV beauty pageants every day for inspiration. She has made the cut due to a last minute cancellation of another hopeful, and her entire family piles into a battered down bus for the trip. The clan includes failed motivational speaker father Richard (Greg Kinnear), fed up housewife Sheryl (Toni Collette), a drug-addicted smart-mouthed grandfather (Alan Arkin), an isolated teen who is intentionally not speaking to anyone named Dwayne (Paul Dano), and depressed Uncle Frank (Steve Carell), who has just been released from the hospital after a failed suicide attempt. During the 800-mile journey, the family will be forced to face their feelings for each other, and their own personal demons.

With a screenplay that constantly teeters on the line between the absurd and heartbreaking reality, Little Miss Sunshine becomes something of a small wonder. It is a movie that is often hilariously funny, but is also touching in many scenes. Despite the crazy situations the characters find themselves in, there is a lot of feelings of pain, isolation, loneliness, and sadness in just about all the adult characters that they try to keep to themselves mostly for the sake of young Olive. The movie knows how to handle its tricky personal issues and the comedy so that the movie's shifts in tone seem natural, instead of desperate or awkward. Some of the scenarios the family encounters during the trip come dangerously close to crossing the line (especially the final outcome of the grandfather character), but the movie never loses sight of its winning combination. And even though the characters are often at each other's throats, the script is smart enough not to make them annoying by having them constantly bicker with one another. The characters are likeable, easy to get behind, and developed well enough that we wind up seeing parts of ourselves in them.

Despite the dark undertones of Little Miss Sunshine, and numerous references to death, suicide and depression, the movie is never heavy or downbeat. Looking back on that sentence, I'll understand if you think I'm out of my head. This is a hopeful movie that never loses sight of the promise of happiness, no matter how bad the lives of the characters may be. Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris have crafted an uplifting and spirited comedy-drama out of some very unlikely material. As well as building some very strong laughs, Sunshine knows how to push the right emotional buttons in every scene. There are many memorable small moments throughout, such as teenage son Dwayne's eventual break down, and Uncle Frank's awkward reunion with someone from his past at a gas station. Each of these scenes are good enough to make small short films of their own. This is a near pitch-perfect movie that rarely if ever makes a wrong turn or a misstep.

All of this is topped off by a first-rate cast all the way around. As the frustrated and tired parents, Greg Kinnear and Toni Collette are realistic and winning in their respective roles. Kinnear in particular plays a man who expects nothing but success out of his family members and others, yet can't seem to reach success himself. He is a character who could have come across as hateful and unlikeable in the wrong hands, but Kinnear knows how to make us relate to him, and is probably one of his strongest performances in recent memory. As the hopeful and bright Olive, Abigail Breslin is a real find. The younger sister of fellow child actor, Spencer Breslin (Zoom, The Shaggy Dog), she has already surpassed her brother with just this one film, as her performance here tops anything her older sibling has ever done in his entire career. The real stand out, however, is Steve Carell who continues his winning streak with the closest thing he's had to a dramatic performance. He is quiet, reserved, and thoughtful in his performance, yet he also gets some of the film's funniest lines. In the span of one year, Carell has successfully changed from small-time supporting roles to leading man, and has become one my favorite actors. I truly hope his work in this film is recognized come award time next year.

With so many comedies (and movies in general) that fail to make any impression at all, Little Miss Sunshine is filled with enough emotion, laughs, and wonderful moments to almost make me forget about the rest of the mediocrity that comes out of Hollywood every year. It is truly a wonderful film, and hopefully it will receive the attention it deserves. It's just now starting to receive a wide release, so there's really no reason for you to miss it. I go to the movies for many reasons. I go to escape, I go to get lost in the story and the characters, and I go to be entertained. Little Miss Sunshine does all that and more.

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