The movie opens like a junior version of a Paul Thomas Anderson epic, pop music swelling in the background as characters are introduced in quick strokes: Richard (Greg Kinnear) is a would-be motivational speaker touting his nine-step "refuse to lose" program to a handful of sad sacks in a dingy classroom. His wife, Sheryl (Toni Collette), is an overwhelmed Everymom. Grandpa (Alan Arkin) is spending his retirement snorting heroin. Teen son Dwayne (Paul Dano) pumps iron beneath a giant Nietsche poster, while, in the next room, his little sister Olive (Abigail Breslin), a cutie pie in tight pigtails and too-big glasses, stares awestruck at a televised beauty pageant. Finally, there's Uncle Frank (Steve Carell), who looks grimly out a hospital window after a failed suicide attempt. As the camera settles on Frank, looking forlorn and defeated, the movie's title is splashed across the screen with thudding irony: Little Miss Sunshine.
This sequence is very tidy in laying out the film's characters and capturing their essence -- too tidy. It works precisely because these characters aren't recognizable human beings but screenwriting devices. Every character can be captured in colorful shorthand: suicidal gay Proust scholar (Carell); potty-mouthed, druggie Grandpa (Arkin); angry, wounded teenager (Dano), etc. And, even at their most developed, the characters can't break out of these little categories.
What first-time filmmakers Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (working from a debut script by Michael Arndt) have conceived here is basically a shabby little indie answer to the self-consciously quirky family malaise of American Beauty, albeit with considerably more optimism. Appropriately, for a film that's as much a comedy on America's fear of failure as Talladega Nights, Dayton and Faris transpose the conceit to a more lower-middle-class setting. But the filmmakers are entirely too impressed by the low-rent, middle-American milieu they've brought to the screen, lingering over a dinner of fast-food chicken and Sprite consumed from mismatched glasses and cups.
It's over this family dinner that the plot is set in motion. Via a screenwriting convenience, pageant addict Olive is invited to participate in the "Little Miss Sunshine" contest in California's Redondo Beach. But there isn't enough money to fly Sheryl and Olive from the family's Albuquerque home, so they have to drive. And since neither druggie Grandpa, suicidal Frank, or mopey teen Dwayne can be trusted without supervision, it becomes a whole family trip, including Richard, because Sheryl can't drive the stick on the family van.
This is an awful lot of heavy lifting to get these six caricatures -- um, characters -- into a lemon-yellow VW van for a family road trip, where close quarters put already strained family dynamics on a full boil. Richard's clueless insistence on his hapless motivational program is an affront to the rest of the family, all self-identified "losers" in one way or another. Well, except for little miss sunshine herself, who embraces every word Daddy says for fear of disappointing him.
Little Miss Sunshine wants us to identify and sympathize with these characters but undercuts any potential empathy by making them so inhuman, even stooping so low for cheap laughs that the movie suddenly morphs into Weekend at Bernie's for a few scenes.
If it sounds like I hated Little Miss Sunshine, well, in theory I did. But it kept winning me over in the small moments. The script is a bundle of contrivances, clichés, and mean-spiritedness masquerading as up-with-losers solidarity. It gives indie cinema, and maybe liberalism itself, a bad name. But somehow this cast keeps taking that VW lemon and making lemonade.
Arkin goes through the tired old-man-behaving-badly routine with dutiful gusto, but when he finally gets a moment to communicate with his granddaughter like an actual human being, he seizes it. Breslin is charming without trying too hard. She never looks like she's striving for her character's cheerful obliviousness to family dysfunction. Collette has proven an able, humanizing straight woman to more colorful characters before (see her playing off Cameron Diaz and Shirley MacLaine in the underrated In Her Shoes) and never allows her roughly sketched character to become a mere cliché.
Carell and Dano make their mutual respect and hostage-mentality camaraderie instantly credible, and Carell -- whose The 40-Year-Old Virgin has been on cable constantly in recent weeks and just gets more impressive over time -- is a comic wonder in the moments of physical comedy the script grants him. Kinnear is given the least to work with -- his character is a clueless, one-note buffoon for much of the movie -- but keeps his head above water enough that we're able to buy in when Richard finally comes to his senses.
Little Miss Sunshine's poor conception and winning execution are all there in the big finish. When the family finally gets to the beauty contest, the segment is initially repulsive. The film decides to attack the pageant people as a means of elevating the film's protagonists, zeroing in on the spray tans, teased hair, and caked-on makeup to make Olive's competitors objects of ridicule. There's a trite "life is one big beauty contest" message here, but the result is unnecessarily mean-spirited.
But then Olive comes out for her contest routine, an ostensibly inappropriate performance that ends up being subversively, if unintentionally, appropriate. And the rest of the family joins in. It's silly, unbelievable, and -- worse -- a transparently desperate attempt for an audience-rousing climax. The actors sell it so well that it actually works.
Little Miss Sunshine
Opens Friday, August 18th
Studio on the Square