3 out of 4 stars
Road trip flicks have been beaten to death in contemporary cinema, so much that any new piece that surfaces is swiftly brushed away. However, one that so cleverly and discreetly infuses the values of family can’t be ignored. Therein lies the secret weapon that gives Little Miss Sunshine its true value.
The plot is almost too simple: a family who can’t seem to stand each other’s company embarks on a road trip from Albuquerque, N.M., to take their daughter Olive to the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant in California.
But the demeanors of the individual characters create the speed bumps along the way (not to mention their jalopy version of a Volkswagen bus that needs to be started by pushing it). From patriarch Richard (played by Greg Kinnear) who enforces the intense pressure of winning with a sickening smile, to the son Dwayne (played by Paul Dano) who has taken a vow of silence in respect to Friedrich Nietzsche, Sunshine engages in something that so many films these days have expelled from their agendas: character development.
Steve Carell, fresh off his irresistible performance in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, firmly establishes himself as a comedic genius and also puts his name on the ballot for impressive drama actor. He plays uncle Frank, a homosexual Proust scholar who has just failed at attempting suicide. Loaded character, huh? In the film’s opening sequence, a simple shot of Frank gazing out of a hospital window, staring blankly into space conveys all the audience needs to know about his character. His bloodshot eyes and focused expression say more than most monologues do. Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris also make the brilliant decision to plaster the film’s title across the screen in this very shot, creating a marvelous juxtaposition.
Screenwriter Michael Arndt creates a kinetic ensemble comedy. The script consistently continues to divulge more and more about the characters as the film progresses. It delivers true laughs (none of that base comedy slop) and true heart.
It’s a delight to see Kinnear and Toni Collette play a married couple again, as they did in the HBO film Dinner With Friends. Their chemistry is right on, as they yet again portray the picture of an ever-feuding husband and wife.
Alan Arkin as Grandpa delivers a wild geriatric who consistently shocks his family with his commentary and loathing of repetitive chicken dinners. He and Carell maintain the film’s deliciously odd sense of humor throughout.
Many scenes take place in the hideous yellow VW Bus, equipped with malfunctioning horns, detachable doors, and running-start ignition. Although filming was reportedly torture for cast and crew, it depicts a hilarious realism of claustrophobia with family that everyone can relate to. Sunshine is peppered with these truisms that make the Hoovers a real-life family.
Dayton and Faris’ decision to shoot the film in long takes is effective, as the actors beautifully fit into their roles. In addition, longer scenes rightfully ignore America’s cinematic attention-deficit disorder and force the audience to sit down, shut up, and watch the screen – watch what’s unfolding. Their directorial risks pay off and create something truly engaging.
But aside from the offbeat humor, the script holds subtle messages about family and unity. In a non-Lifetime way, each character grows past his or her original speed bumps and the Hoovers actually appear to enjoy being together at the end of the movie.
Little Miss Sunshine isn’t the most original movie, nor is it revolutionary. But it doesn’t need to be. It’s a fantastic example of quality writing, character development, and how to expose messages subtly. Hollywood, take a lesson.
Jesse North can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.