Little Miss Sunshine is all about what happens when you have a dream that fails to come true. Are you a loser for failing or a success for daring to dream in the first place? For most, it’s easier to call yourself a failure. There is something particularly dispiriting about being able to visualize something and believe in it, then have it completely fail to materialize. No one knows this better than Richard Hoover (Greg Kinnear), a failed motivational speaker who pedals a platitude-heavy 9-step program on how to succeed. Amazingly, he doesn’t recognize that his own method doesn’t actually work. (If it did, he’d already be rich.) Richard has all his hopes resting on selling his concept in book form, and in the early scenes we find him eagerly awaiting word of a publishing deal from his agent.
Richard is married to Sheryl (Toni Collette), whose income is just barely keeping them afloat. The financial problems have created a lot of marital discord. Sheryl was married once before, and that union produced a son named Dwayne (Paul Dano). Now a teenager with a chip on his shoulder and a disdain for literally everyone, Dwayne has taken a vow of complete silence until he can get out of the house and join the Air Force, where he can fly planes high above the din of his mother and stepfather fighting. Together, Richard and Sheryl had Olive (Abigail Breslin), a seven year-old who participates in local beauty pageants. As if having four people living in their small New Mexico home wasn’t crowded enough, the Hoovers have also taken in Richard’s drug-abusing father (Alan Arkin), who was kicked out of the retirement community for bad behavior, and Sheryl’s brother Frank (Steve Carell), a gay Proust scholar who recently attempted suicide.
To say that the Hoovers are dysfunctional would be an understatement. Richard, in particular, is so focused on success that he drills bad messages into his kids’ heads, conveniently overlooking the fact that he himself is a failure. Into this stressful world comes some unexpected news: the winner of the most recent local pageant had to give up her crown, making first runner-up Olive the de facto winner. This qualifies her to enter the final round – the Little Miss Sunshine contest in California.
Without money to fly, Richard and Sheryl decide to drive Olive to the event. Grandpa, who choreographed her dance routine for the talent portion, insists on coming. And since no one trusts Frank or Dwayne to be home alone, they get drug along. The family crawls into a bright yellow VW van and hits the road. The first law of movie road trips is that the voyage can’t be problem free, and this one is no different. It’s interesting to watch how the family – where everyone has his/her own set of problems and dilemmas – navigates the various obstacles thrown in their path. (A broken car horn provides some particularly hysterical moments.) Although there’s plenty of tension, the clan also manages to cooperate in tight moments. For example, when the clutch on the van breaks, they simply push it until it gets up to speed, then take turns jumping in.
Lots and lots of movies have been made about dysfunctional families, most of which depict only the bickering that goes on. Little Miss Sunshine is different. It shows how the Hoovers possess coping skills that they don’t recognize. They’re all so focused on the problems that they often miss the little ways in which they pull together. If they had any sort of awareness of this trait, they probably wouldn’t be as miserable as they are. By the time Olive takes the stage at the pageant (in a show-stoppingly funny scene), their problems remain but the family has learned how to be united. Every bump they hit along the way forces them to let down their guards and start relying on one another. The screenplay – by first-timer Michael Arndt – is beautifully constructed to gradually show us how this happens. It always feels real and never sitcomy.
Perhaps the underlying message of the film is that success (or failure) depends on how you define it. We see this idea conveyed in every main character’s arc. Richard may not be able to find the key to financial success, but that doesn’t mean that he can’t succeed in other ways. Or consider Olive, who gets to California only to realize that she’s a little chunkier and a lot less polished than her competition. From the standard set by child beauty pageants, she clearly doesn’t measure up. However, she has a lot of mature qualities that her peers won’t achieve for several years. By the end of the movie, each of the characters has to face the idea that their dreams may not become a reality. At moments like this, families either stand or fall. The manner in which it happens for the Hoovers is deeply meaningful in a completely hilarious way.
Little Miss Sunshine does a delicate balancing act. It’s full of humor and big laughs, yet it also touches on some serious issues in a relevant manner. Like Garden State or Sideways, the film uses comedy to find the content in the lives of its characters. Directing team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (making their feature debut after years of helming cutting-edge music videos) set the tone early on, then consistently hit all the right notes thereafter. I love all kinds of films, but the ones that realistically mix laughter and emotion are my favorites. This is a great example of what I mean.
It helps that the actors do a convincing job playing a dysfunctional-but-caring family unit. Greg Kinnear (who has amassed an impressive body of work in the last few years) is excellent as the winning-obsessed Richard. I also particularly liked Steve Carell, who plays very restrained here – quite the opposite from his work in The 40 Year-Old Virgin or on “The Office.” He’s a great choice because Frank is so sad, yet Carell is so funny; it makes the character’s every word and action feel unexpected. Collette and Arkin are also fantastic, as are the kids. Paul Dano (The Girl Next Door) does a lot with just facial expressions and the notebook that Dwayne uses to communicate, while Abigail Breslin avoids every single “precocious child” cliché to deliver a performance that is heartwarming.
I have not told you many of the specifics about what happens on the Hoover family road trip because the less you know, the funnier and more poignant Little Miss Sunshine is. What counts is that these people – who uniformly consider themselves losers – are ultimately forced to reevaluate their shared self-image. They learn what we already know: winning doesn’t automatically make you a winner, and losing doesn’t automatically make you a loser. Their journey makes Little Miss Sunshine funny, touching, and unexpectedly inspiring.
( out of four)
Little Miss Sunshine is rated R for language, some sex and drug content. The running time is 1 hour and 41 minutes.
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