Monday, August 14, 2006

If You See One Movie About Child Beauty Queens...

I got to see Little Miss Sunshine over the weekend, and it was way better than I could have expected. I had heard that it was funny, but nothing special. Without hesitation, I can say that Roger Ebert would have given this movie 4 Stars and an enthusiastic Thumbs Up if he was on active duty.

While it has primarily been marketed as "the new Steve Carell movie," Sunshine is a brilliant ensemble piece, with a little something for every actor (and every viewer). The film opens with a montage featuring every member of the Hoover family at a particular moment of their day: daughter Olive (Abigail Breslin) is mimicking the melodramatic gushing of a pageant winner on TV; son Dwayne (Paul Dano) is brooding over a Nietschze paperback; Grandpa (Alan Arkin) is enjoying some illegal substances; father Richard (Greg Kinnear) is speaking at a poorly attended motivational seminar; and, mother Sheryl (Toni Collette) is on her way to the hospital, where her brother, Frank (Carell), is recovering from a failed suicide attempt. After a few brief expository scenes, the family is off in a less than reliable VW bus to a children's beauty pageant in California in which Olive is a contestant.

As with any family comedy, a lot of the humor is produced from personality clashes. Kinnear's character is obsessed with winning, despite the fact that it is a concept entirely foreign to him. He criticizes his daughter for eating ice cream when she is preparing to compete in a pageant, and, in one memorable scene, shames Frank for using sarcasm, "the refuge of losers." Vulgar Grandpa rubs everyone the wrong way, and Dwayne refuses to speak until he can go to flight school. Dwayne is an underused character in the film. He spends the majority of the movie in silence, but, as with any non-speaking character, the moment when he does speak must contain some sort of payoff for the viewer (The Silent Bob Corollary). Dano has a poignant breakdown scene, but a subtle and believable one. His later spoken scenes left me wishing that Dwayne had dropped the vow of silence earlier. Fortunately, the film's conflicts (even the ridiculous ones) are treated respectfully, and are not over-the-top. This movie could have easily been a Meet The Fockers-caliber production, but its sweetness saves it.

The family's individual failures to function in the world do not transfer to their ability to exist as a unit. Grandpa might be a drug-addicted porno consumer, but he treats granddaughter Olive like a princess. In fact, many of the characters reveal their humanity through interaction with Olive. The proof of this is found in an incredibly funny dance scene that rivals the "Vote for Pedro" dance in Napoleon Dynamite. Just imagine "Superfreak" instead of Jamiroquai.

The acting is near-perfect. I'm glad that Steve Carell chose to take a step back from the whole leading comedic star thing and pull a David Spade in Just Shoot Me. I think he may be one of those actors whose strengths are better showcased through group projects. Greg Kinnear is, as always, excellent and immensely likeable, even as a man laying the groundwork for his daughter's future eating disorder. More importantly, the entire main cast works very naturally together. With some family comedies, the actors' looks and behavior make it difficult to believe that they've ever seen each other before. These actors not only make the love work, but the resentment, frustration, and loyalty as well.

Little Miss Sunshine is a unique family comedy in that it doesn't go for cheap, immature laughs. The humor is smart, brutal, and honest. Try to see it, if you can.