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Monday, August 28, 2006

Little Miss Sunshine (2006)

Little Miss Sunshine begins with a swelling score by Devotchka and a sequence that introduces us to all of the members of the dysfunctional Hoover family. We see Sheryl, played with world-weary resignation by Toni Colette. We see grandpa (Alan Arkin) who likes to chase women and snort heroin. He explains that, as a kid, you’d have to be crazy to do heroin, but as an old man, you’d be crazy not to do it. We see Dwayne (Paul Dano), the 15-year-old son who wants to be a fighter pilot, doing his morning sit ups in front of a giant painting of Frederick Nietzsche. We see Uncle Frank, sitting alone in a wheelchair in some far off hospital. But most important we see Olive, the seven-year-old girl whose enthusiasm and effervescence keeps this crazy family together.

Greg Kinnear, a true artist at playing smiling, enthusiastic losers, plays Mr. Hoover. He is a failed motivational speaker who never shuts up about his “nine step plan.” During a hilarious early scene at the dinner table, while discussing Uncle Frank’s recent suicide attempt, Kinnear tells his daughter “your uncle Frank gave up on himself, which is something winners never do.” It is horrifying and yet…well, we all know a guy like that, don’t we? Uncle Frank is the number one Proust scholar in America, whose boyfriend has just left him for the number two Proust scholar in America. I love this character. Steve Carrel conveys his pain in a deft and understated manner. He is able to generate laughs in the audience just by shifting in his chair.

Olive Hoover wants to win Little Miss Sunshine, a beauty pageant in southern California. She came in second at the regionals, but she still trains every day with her grandpa (who coaches her on her “moves,”) in the hopes of someday being a beauty queen. When the little girl to whom she came in second gets disqualified for using diet pills, Olive gets her chance to compete in Redondo Beach for the title. Her entire family, falling apart and virtually bankrupt, pulls together and makes an 800-mile trip across the southwest to the pageant. The family is held together by their love for Olive, and it’s no wonder—Abigail Breslin (Mel Gibson’s adorable daughter in Signs) is one of the most genuine and lovable child actors I have ever seen. The other small miracle in this film is Paul Dano, whose almost mute performance as Dwayne is nothing short of extraordinary.

Like the 1975 film Smile, Little Miss Sunshine paints a scathing portrait of beauty pageants while conveying a strong anti-conformity message. In the same vein as Harold and Maude, Little Miss Sunshine manages to venture into the realm of absurdist black comedy while remaining very human and true to its characters. There is one sequence—involving a dying relative—that skirts very close to the edge of bad taste. What prevents it from going too far is the sheer authenticity of the acting. The characters are so well defined, so believable and so well acted that when act, we understand their motivations perfectly without having to be told. This family acts totally insane and they do stuff that most families would never do. Yet, somehow, their behavior makes sense within the established context of their existence. This film shocks, but it does not shock just to get easy laughs. That restraint should be respected. Little Miss Sunshine makes you laugh consistenly, but also makes you to cry when you least expect it. Go see it, all the hype is true.

The amount I would pay for this movie: $9 (which is 4 less than I did…hooray for matinees!)


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