Little Miss Sunshine was wonderful. It takes the traditional story of a dysfunctional family bonding on road trip and adds great unique characters, updated issues, and some unconventional humor. It’s a great blend of comedy and drama, with fantastic acting and a great message as well, even though the way it’s told may not be strictly family friendly.
When visiting relatives in California, Olive Hoover (Abigail Breslin) won second place in a beauty contest, and now that the winner is indisposed she gets to take the winner’s place in the regional Little Miss Sunshine beauty contest. Her grandfather (Alan Arkin) has been helping her with her routine and she is really excited to go. However, the rest of the Hoovers are not as excited about life as she is.
Uncle Frank (Steve Carrell), because of unrequited love, attempted to commit suicide but failed. Now he has to be under the constant supervision of the rest of the family. The father, Richard (Greg Kinnear) is a motivational speaker who doesn’t really motivate anybody. His book deal might not come in, and he looks down on Uncle Frank because of what he perceives as weakness of attempting suicide. However, he really admires the vow of silence that his son Dwanye (Paul Dano) has taken as a motivation to get into flight school. Dwanye never talks, but he communicates via notepad. One of the first things he writes is: “I hate everyone.” So yeah, he’s not a happy camper. The mother Sheryl, is just trying to keep peace in the family, which is pretty hard to do when she has to argue with Richard over the financial situation all of the time.
When Olive realizes she can actually go, she screams like a little girl and runs all over the house. Appropriate reaction, seeing as that’s what she actually is. The transportation poses a problem, though. They don’t have enough money to fly and the relatives have some equestrian thing, so eventually it is decided that the whole family will go in the sunshine yellow VW bus, because they’re all such a happy bunch. This image gets even more hilarious when the bus experiences technical difficulties. They always have to park on a hill or push the bus to get it started, requiring everyone to work together to accomplish motion.
The film really is a journey over the course of which the various characters deal with their own personal problems as well as coming together as a family. In my opinion, Richard has the most growth and starts out needing it the most. His crazy “Nine Steps” program often alienates him from the rest of the family, but he’s too into his motivational theories to even notice or care. He offends Frank by being completely insensitive to why he attempted suicide, he offends his father because he doesn’t respect his life choices and won’t accept a compliment from him, his persistence with the book deal gets on his wife’s nerves because in the meantime they don’t have a lot of money, and Dwanye can’t stand him because he’s such a phony. He even manages to scare Olive by making her almost drop out of the contest because she might not win. After a talk with her grandpa though, Olive is all in.
Olive was clearly the glue that holds the family together. First of all, they wouldn’t even have gone on any kind of journey if she wasn’t there. Her age, cuteness, and positivity affect everyone much more than any of Richard’s cliche speeches ever could. I’m not going to give away the ending, but those of you who have seen it will understand when I say that without her, the family never would have made that final step that unifies them. Abigail Breslin was great in this part. She is one of the most famous and talented child actors out there (even though she is know like 16) and as far as know this is her greatest role. Not only is she central to the story, but she plays Olive in a way that (probably minus the ending) makes her a good role model for other kids. She is not as conventionally pretty as the other girls in the pageant, but has about a million times more adorableness and courage. She also does not let the pressure of winning get to her too much, but still shows that she is worried about it.
Alan Arkin was terrific as always, winning a supporting actor Oscar. In my opinion, Greg Kinnear is a very underrated actor and he did not disappoint me here. I was surprised by him playing such a jerk at the beginning, but he did it really well and it is something I have not seen from him for such an extended period of time. He took Richard’s growth throughout the film in a good direction as well, by the end there was none of that jerkface left. Paul Dano as Dwayne was great as well, the embodiment of teenage angst. He handled the silence very well and had the perfect “I don’t care about any of this” look on his face, while still letting us know that he did actually care. But the performance I was most impressed with was Steve Carell’s (serious crow eating coming up guys).
I’ve never liked Steve Carell. Granted, I never saw him in anything, but I watch enough football on network TV to catch commercials for his stuff. I always thought he was profoundly stupid and I couldn’t figure out why he was so famous. Well, maybe because he’s good actor (what?). He was great in Little Miss Sunshine. I’m not saying I’m going to track down everything he’s ever done, but I recognize that he can enjoy him if I like the part he’s playing. Frank was a great character, very melancholy and with good reason. The love of his life left him for his colleague, “Larry Sugarman, the second most highly regarded Proust scholar in the US,” instead of staying with him, the first. Talk about depressing. The he loses his job and Sugarman gets his man AND his former thrown. Even through all of this he still manages to have a sarcastic exchange with Richard, and thereby defend his actions from his contempt. So I hereby officially revise my opinion of Steve Carell, and I apologize for my previous ignorance.
While a film about the growth of a family, I wouldn’t really call this a family film. Remember, it is rated R and maybe that’s a bit harsh, but it’s probably the right decision. The Hoover’s are not perfect, and even at the end they are definitely not conventional (or PG). The important thing is that they have bonded together in a very big way, and even though initially shocking, it’s very heartwarming once you get past that.
“She eats ice cream!”
Long story short: 3/4 stars