One of my favorite albums from last year was Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois. It was a layered, textured tour-de-force that mixed simple folk and grand orchestrations with a mindset of Midwestern, Americana pop, like Cat Stevens and Vince Guaraldi channeled through Denison Witmer. It’s only fitting, then, that the stunning new comedy Little Miss Sunshine, written by Michael Arndt and directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, features some of Sufjan Stevens’ tunes — notably the luminous “Chicago” — in the soundtrack. The record is meant to be listened to and experienced while staring out the window of a fast-moving car barreling through America, which is exactly what happens in the film: A dysfunctional family of lonely outcasts travels from New Mexico to California so that the young daughter can compete in the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant. Along the way, they all experience the kind of small but profound changes that you just know are bound to happen in road movies like this one, but the film’s plot and sensibility defy expectations enough to keep things fresh.
The Hoover family is slowly being pulled apart, and the chief culprit is their firm establishment in the country’s faceless middle class. Richard (Greg Kinnear) is obsessed with selling his nine-step program about taking charge of the “winner inside you” and has pinned his hopes on a looming book deal that will hopefully pull the family back into the black. His wife, Sheryl (Toni Collette), works a job that requires her to wear a name tag, and at the film’s outset Sheryl takes in her brother Frank (Steve Carell), a manic-depressive gay Proust scholar, after he’s discharged from the hospital following a failed suicide attempt; the hospital wants to keep him, but the family doesn’t have the insurance. So Frank goes to live with his sister’s family in a resolutely average home in Albuquerque, choked with wood paneling and knick-knacks and oozing a sad, suburban, lived-in honesty. Grandpa (Alan Arkin) also lives with them and, in addition to snorting heroin and regaling them all with blue stories of the sexual exploits that got him kicked out of his retirement home, he also helps young Olive (Abigail Breslin) train for the beauty pageant. Then there’s Dwayne (Paul Dano), a teen infatuated with Nietzsche who hasn’t spoken a word in nine months and who rigorously trains in hopes of one day becoming a test pilot to escape the family he hates so much. Arndt’s screenplay draws established characters with a minimum of exposition, and it’s also brilliantly funny. The humor is sharp and quick and somehow life-affirming, mixing the pain of failure with a desperate desire to struggle through it.
Things get rolling when the family is notified that Olive has been bumped up to the finalists’ level in the Little Miss Sunshine competition, which she’d entered a few weeks earlier while visiting family in Redondo Beach with Sheryl. Richard and Sheryl have it out over the travel arrangements at the dinner table: Flying is too costly, and their old VW bus is on its last legs. Grandpa wants to go because he’s Olive’s coach, and Frank’s on suicide watch and can’t be left alone, so before you know it, they’ve all unhappily agreed to go on the trip for Olive. There’s no satisfaction in the decision, and in fact it’s clear that the 800-mile journey could very well do irreparable harm to their relationships. But that’s family: Doing something you hate for someone you love.
Once the show gets on the road, however, Dayton and Faris’ film begins to take on a new, soaring life, aided musically by Stevens, Devotchka, and composer Mychael Danna. The van’s clutch blows out fairly early, so from now on, it has to be given a push and started in third gear. It always comes back to money: The car can’t be fixed, so Richard and the rest learn to live with it broken. One of the most telling lines is practically glossed over, as the family stops to eat at a diner and Olive asks Sheryl how much they can spend. Sheryl, eyeing the menu, replies that there’s a four-dollar max; the exchange is so casual it’s obvious that the subject has come up many times at many restaurants. The family is haunted by financial difficulties. This is what helps make Richard, if not as sympathetic as the others at the outset, then at least understandable. Richard is a misguided father, who can be absolutely cruel to Olive with his lectures about the natures of winners and losers, and even cautions her at one point of the dangers of ice cream if she wants to keep entering beauty pageants. He’s a bad parent, but not a bad person, and the film is smart enough to show him as a man driven to extremes and exhausted from the effort of holding his family together with his bare hands. He doesn’t just want this book deal for himself but for his family, who are depending on him.
As the family gets closer to their destination, they encounter greater obstacles, including a jolting plot twist that heightens the drama. For a brief moment, the film skates the edge of maudlin, but it remains grounded in dark humor thanks to the solid script and pitch-perfect cast. Kinnear is such a dependable presence he’s often overlooked, but he’s wonderful here, as is Collette, whose Sheryl is often caught between loving her husband and giving up on everything. Nobody needs convincing when it comes to Carell’s comedic talents, but Little Miss Sunshine gives him the chance to play a beautiful role built on subtle humor, defined by brief glances or short exchanges with the family. He’s gifted enough to know that less is so much more, and he’s able to turn from barely repressed ebullience to genuine sadness in a heartbeat. Dano also comes a long way here in distancing himself from his less than credible past (The Girl Next Door, a bit part in Taking Lives); he could be the first likeable existentially distressed teen on film. Of the cast, Arkin is the only one who goes broad, and his over-the-top Grandpa is a perfect match for Breslin’s Olive, who serves as the family’s constant and unspoken motivation to keep going. The 10-year-old Breslin is easily the most enjoyable, forthright child actor in recent memory. She’s like the anti-Dakota Fanning: Where Fanning feels eerily like a child pretending to be an adult, Breslin isn’t afraid to act like a kid.
The film ends on a bittersweet note of truth, with the family realizing that, if you can’t recapture the past, you might as well keep on moving and see what the future holds. Dayton and Faris’ film illustrates the difference between suffering life’s inevitable injustices and facing them head-on. As the family packs up the van to head home, they once again get out and give it a push to make it start. Their faces show a kind of odd joy in the act, too. They’re not happy about it, exactly, but resolved to do what needs to be done. It’s a sight to see.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and works at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.All Things Go, All Things Grow
Film | August 29, 2006 | Comments ()