Little Miss Sunshine is the tale of a seemingly functional dysfunctional family as they drive to California for the Little Miss Sunshine pageant. Olive Hoover (Abigail Breslin) has qualified to enter Little Miss Sunshine and practices daily with her coach, who happens to be her heroin-snorting, obscenity-yelling grandpa (Alan Arkin). Her mother Sheryl (Toni Collette) promises to get Olive to Redondo Beach, California even though Olive’s wannabe motivational speaker father Richard (Greg Kinnear) claims they cannot afford the trip. Olive’s brother Dwayne (Paul Dano), who has taken a vow of silence until he joins the Air Force Academy, and Uncle Frank (Steve Carell), who needs constant supervision due to a recent suicide attempt, are forced to tag along on this makeshift family vacation.
I could tell you about all of their misadventures along the way, but it isn’t necessary. You should see the movie to know what they are. What I will tell you is Little Miss Sunshine is all sorts of wonderful.
The sets aren’t beautifully amazing locations, but simplistically perfect. The Hoover home is a simple one in Albuquerque. Instead of using the standard Southwestern style, the art department has chosen to go with a simple monotone palette. The set is there, but it is definitely in the background because even the knick-knacks fall into the beige-yellow color scheme of the home. Choosing this helps the clutter exist, yet still feel simple. It emphasizes the financial situation of the family without screaming and beating you over the head with it. The hotel has different color schemes for each room and looks exactly like those cheesy motels in Anywhere, USA, where the bedspread and curtains match and clash all at the same time.
A lot of times, independent features have the soundtracks you notice most and that holds true for Little Miss Sunshine. With Garden State, it was the CD you had to buy. With Little Miss Sunshine, it is the soundtrack that perfectly matches the expressions and body language of the characters. These aren’t simply tunes that sound cool or a score that happens to work. The music matches every other aspect of the film, from the colors and lighting to the tone of the scene. Little Miss Sunshine doesn’t have a soundtrack that distracts from the film, but one that is one role of many working together in the movie.
While the characters alone might seem a bit overdone in independent cinema, the casting was perfect, allowing for the actors to really bring their roles to life. The first scene with the entire family together is an example of how well the actors work, not only for their individual roles, but also as a collective cast. They are around the dinner table and their dysfunctionality as a family is exposed by showing the random intricacies of each character. A simple glance or shrug accompanied with the right tone of voice makes this family unit believable. They aren’t the hokey, cheesed-out, everyone gets along, dream family. But they are far from the over-the-top, dramarama, unbelievable, everyone hates each other a little too much family either. There is the right amount of camaraderie and disgust to make the Hoovers a realistic American family.
While a little unlikely, this ensemble cast really pulls it off. Greg Kinnear may take his “Nine Steps To Success” a little too seriously, telling his daughter, “Don’t apologize. It’s a sign of weakness,” or his suicidal brother-in-law, “Sarcasm is the refuge of losers.” But he finds vulnerability in humanity that might allow for loss to actually make you a winner. Toni Collette is the mother who has a strong desire to protect and keep her family together, all the while harboring a little resentment toward them as well. And man, can she look angry! Alan Arkin is the crazy grandpa who either had too many life experiences or not enough and so gives some unique advice to his family. Abigail Breslin (yes, she is thecute little girl who stole the show in Signs) is naively adorable but not without dignity, which is hard for a 7-year-old who wants to be a beauty queen.
Two actors outshine the rest, perhaps because their characters are the most alienated. Paul Dano doesn’t say a single word for most of the movie. Once he does start talking, he still doesn’t say much. But then, his eyes are so expressive he doesn’t need to. He nails what it is to be a teenage boy with contempt for his family and longing so much to get away. But Dano isn’t a downer. No, he is a very, very funny young actor.
Steve Carell, however, stands out above the rest – and not just because he is dressed in pristine white clothing. In his first serious role, Carell is leaps and bounds away from his role as Andy in The 40 Year Old Virgin. I would argue he is also leaps and bounds better. While I have enjoyed some of his previous work, I would never have said I was a Steve Carell fan. I was completely blown away. There are certainly moments when the same sarcastic humor comes out (like when he gets some free advice from his brother-in-law), but his subdued melancholy is above and beyond what was expected.
Little Miss Sunshine isn’t some feel good movie that will tickle you pink. I mean, people die and dreams are crushed, for goodness sake. Little Miss Sunshine is a quirky comedy about a quirky family, full of ups and downs, and will still tickle you, just maybe not pink.