Friday, July 28, 2006

Little Miss Sunshine - Movie Review

Little Miss Sunshine 2006

One of the famed outcomes of the Sundance Film Festival, is the inevitable hipster clickishness and box office failure of each year’s “Sundance Hits!” Which is a shame for a film festival meant to celebrate the best and brightest of independent films. But perhaps now is the time for us to mention that in general, we find most “Independent Films” to be so achingly dull and shoddingly made that perhaps that outcome is a blessing in disguise. And with that, welcome to “Little Miss Sunshine” – this year’s runaway hit (literally) from Sundance, now coming to a tiny, dingy Art House theatre thirty miles near you!

Little Miss Sunshine” concerns the Hoover family. A hodgepodge of comedy clichés and nervous disorders who decide to venture forth on a road trip in search of happiness for their littlest one. Mayhem ensues, their ride – a vintage VW van breaks down, children are left behind at roadside pitstops, much yelling and screaming, an on the road catastrophe and the final denouement at their road’s end that somehow manages to bring this scattershot family back together in time for the inevitable closing shot of them driving off into the sunset.

And you know what? It works. To a point. Thanks to the wonderful chemistry and talent of the six main actors. Kudos to them, in ascending order:

Greg Kinnear as the straightlaced father attempting to start his own self empowerment program inspired to build “Winners” out of “Losers”. Despite his Oscar nominated turn in the average “As Good As It Gets” nine years ago, Greg has failed to ignite the screen. This may be in part to his whitebread non charms, but not due to his lack of acting talent. Here he is perfectly cast as a man who faces financial ruin, but is determined to pull through for the sake of his family.

Toni Collette as the befuddled mother who finds herself holding her family together through attempted suicides, deaths, and daydreams. Toni Collette is a another one time Oscar nominee, for an even worse film than Greg’s – who has managed to eek out a career as a misfit or any of a garden variety damaged goods characters. Here she shines as the stalwart mother who supports her non-supportive children in whatever oddball scheme they decide to embark upon. We have always been fans of Ms. Collette, and she does not disappoint.

Paul Dano as the eldest child, Dwayne who idolizes Nietzsche and has sworn a vow of silence until he is old enough to enter the military to attend flight training school. At first, we assumed we were unfamiliar with young master Dano’s work, but it turns out he once went by the name of Paul Franklin Dano and turned in a stunning performance in the electrifyingly disturbing “L.I.E.” way back in 2001. While he manages well enough the tired role of angry teen mute in the first half, it is in the second half that he soars as the angry with a voice teen who decides to pull it together long enough to support his little sister in her time of need.

Steve Carell as Toni’s brother, a suicidal gay man who happens to be the preeminent scholar on all things Proustian. This is both the worst developed character in the piece, and the most surprisingly well played. While Mr. Carell is no stranger to audiences with his regular gig on NBC’s delightfully underrated Americanization of “The Office”, it was his smash hit comedy of last year “The 40 Year Old Virgin” that has moviegoers clamoring for more. (Sidenote: Color us jaded, but we venture to guess it is Mr. Carell’s current box-office appeal that inspired the successful distribution of this “small” independent comedy.) Here, he makes the most of his wounded character, unfortunately at the mercy of a few painfully unfunny homophobic cracks. "Fagrag". Ha ha. Got it. And yes, we saw the payoff to that scene coming a country mile away. But still, Mr. Carell deserves major credit for rising above the material.

Alan Arkin as the foul mouthed grandfather with a penchant for snorting heroin. Despite two Oscar nominations in his long and extremely varied career, Alan Arkin has never reached the same box office clout as Mr. Carell, and that is a shame for all film lovers. An artful comic and master dramatic actor, Alan Arkin can turn tragedy to comedy on a dime and sell it completely. His scenes with the youngest member of the cast are the films highlight.

And finally the greatest and smallest of them all, Abigail Breslin as the seven year old daughter, Olive who dreams of winning the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant. For it is this call to fame that forces the Hoover family to jump into their van and drive pell-mell towards the state pageant finals in a mad dash. What Abigail Breslin does with the role is astonishing. By turns, stage struck tyke to the lovingly understanding and beguiling daughter who learns the most difficult lessons in life through her journey, she never once falters. What a great little performer, this Abby!! Sci-fi lovers may remember her debut turn as the youngest alien evader in M. Night Shymalan’s successful “Signs”.

Here as the driving force behind her family’s bonding, she is never too cloying or preternaturally aware as the majority of child actors tend to be. She hits every note spot on. From the wide eyed innocence of one who believes in the sincerity of Beauty Pageants . . . poor thing, she’ll learn . . . to the carefree trusting of a child who not only loves her family, but whole heartedly believes in their protection.

These six actors, are not only uniformly fine in their performances – they accomplish the near impossible. They bring life and vitality to six fairly clichéd characters and some rather clunky and purloined road trip hijinks. For the road trip flick has been a mainstay of moviemaking since Henry Ford unleashed his Model T on an unsuspecting world. Certainly the scenario of a family of kooks has been around, even long before the stage to screen triumph of the Oscar winning “You Can’t Take It With You” delighted 1930s audiences with a smorgasbord of lovable losers.

And lovable is indeed the final verdict on the Hoover family. Despite the many shamelessly lifted moments of slapstick and ribaldry along the way, this film succeeds based on the merits of its finely chosen cast. We would like to credit the debut direction of husband and wife team, Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, but their glory seems to stop at the casting level. The don’t necessarily bring anything new or noteworthy to the plot or humor, they merely stand back and let their cast shine. We were glad we spent time with the Hoover clan, and think you will too. In a summer of idiocy and unfunny comedies, you could hardly ask for better. (Well, you could - but what would be the point?)

But of course we would be letting down our legions of fans if we didn’t touch upon the negative. The finale to this madhop mayhem almost sinks the film. We won’t reveal any finer points about the denouement – suffice to say that it is hardly credible, even in a pseudo slapstick comedy for the main characters to be completely oblivious to the nature of their cosmetic Mecca. The not so subtle commentary on inner versus outer beauty is cartoonish at best and slightly cringe inducing at its worst. We can still recommend “Little Miss Sunshine” as a pleasant diversion, but had hoped that the script were up to the promise of its insanely delightful players. They deserve better than a finale lifted from outtakes of "So You Think You Can Dance". Bless you all!

Directed by Valerie Faris & Jonathan Dayton
Written by Michael Arndt

Abigail Breslin as Olive
Greg Kinnnear as Richard
Toni Collette as Sheryl
Paul Dano as Dwayne
Alan Arkin as Grandpa
Steve Carell as Frank
Bryan Cranston as Stan Grossman
Justin Shilton as Josh
Gordon Thomson as Larry Sugarman

Cinematography by Tim Suhrstedt
Film Editing by Pamela Martin
Original Music by Mychael Danna & Devotchka
Production Design by Kalina Ivanov
Art Direction by Alan E. Muraoka
Set Decoration by Melissa M. Levander
Costume Design by Nancy Steiner


Post a Comment

<< Home