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Little Miss Sunshine

Movie Review


Published August 16, 2006 at 4:00 a.m.

Every once in a while a small picture from unknown first-timers comes along and shows the big boys in Hollywood how it's supposed to be done. Little Miss Sunshine is such a film. Everyone in Tinseltown should be required by law to watch it repeatedly. The rest of the country, I predict, will line up to do so on its own.

No movie out there has generated better word-of-mouth this summer, and for good reason. This is a very good movie, and every single member of the cast is very, very good, from the first frame to the last. Greg Kinnear, for example, has been very good in some very good films, but has never been better than he is here as the head of the Hoover clan, an Albuquerque family that has raised dysfunction to an art form.

Kinnear plays a struggling motivational speaker trapped in the loop of his own success formula. His character has come up with a nine-step program called "Refuse to Lose." But things are not exactly catching fire for him and, while the sane next move would be to give up on his dream and try something else, his patented philosophy forbids him from making it. It's a vexing little existential web he's woven for himself.

Paul (L.I.E.) Dano plays his teenaged stepson, a Nietzsche devotee who's taken a vow of silence and communicates through terse messages scrawled on notepads. They run the gamut from "I hate everyone" to "Go hug Mom," so you know there's an arc of some significance with respect to his character.

Toni Collette is the on-the-verge wife and mother. Her character doesn't need one more thing to worry about, but is handed a big one anyway: Her brother survives a suicide attempt and has to move in so he can be watched around the clock. Steve Carell turns in a masterfully understated performance as a gay Proust scholar who lost it when a Jag-driving rival academic beat him out of the MacArthur genius grant he had yearned for. It's easy to understand why the filmmakers originally courted Bill Murray for the role, but watch the film and ask yourself whether you can really imagine Murray -- or any other comic actor -- making more out of this relatively peripheral part than Carell does.

Alan Arkin is an early arrival on my Best Supporting Actor list for the year thanks to his portrayal of the family's porn-loving, heroin-snorting Grandpa. This character may sound like a gimmick on paper. On the screen, however, the actor gives the old guy soul, wisdom, humor and heart, not to mention a heaping helping of rage. Grandpa rages against the dying of the light. He rages against the fact that his days of sexual delight are behind him. He rages against having to eat take-out KFC for dinner so often.

In a film he has filled with remarkable, and remarkably real, characters, first-time screenwriter Michael Arndt has conjured something wholly original in this complex, vulnerable and immensely memorable figure. "What's someone your age doing taking drugs?" Grandpa is asked. His answer: "My age is 'when you need them.'" There's a brutal honesty at play here that most films -- much less most comedies -- wouldn't touch with a 10-foot boom mike.

The little engine that drives Arndt's story is a 7-year-old who, amidst all the angst, tragedy and failure, has somehow managed to remain touchingly upbeat about life. Abigail Breslin is great as the youngest Hoover -- bespectacled, on the chubby side and besotted with beauty pageants. She came in second in a local competition and, through a fluke, winds up with a spot in the national Little Miss Sunshine contest to be held in Redondo Beach, California. Tight finances prohibit her from flying out with one parent. Instead, she makes the trip surrounded by her entire extended family in a rundown yellow VW bus that, one guesses, is left over from a more carefree time.

Yes, this is a road movie. Yes, we make the trip in the company of yet another indie family composed of quirky, neurotic types. And, yes, we've been down this road before. Hell, Alan Arkin alone has made a festival's worth of these films. But it just doesn't matter. The cast, the script and the direction by music-video vets Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris are simply too good to be missed just because they are in the service of a familiar film form. You wouldn't dismiss a great movie romance because you've seen love stories before. Don't make the mistake of missing Little Miss Sunshine just because the Hoovers aren't the first screwed-up family you've ever seen on the screen.

As sublime as is each of its parts, this movie is infinitely more than the sum of them. That rickety, ridiculous yellow bus provides a ride you won't soon forget, and will be sorry to see come to an end.