WFTB Score: 14/20
The plot: Young Albuquerque beauty queen devotee Olive Hoover takes the family on the trip of their lives on the way to the ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ pageant in Redondo, California; but having a suicidal uncle, mute brother, impotent father, druggy grandfather and temperamental Volkswagen bus to contend with, will all – or any – of them make it to the finals?
Pitched somewhere between the absurd dysfunctionality of Napoleon Dynamite and the grisly black comedy of Todd Solondz’s Happiness, Little Miss Sunshine introduces us to Olive Hoover (Abigail Breslin), unexpectedly and belatedly declared the winner of her local beauty pageant and called, at short notice, to attend the finals nine hundred miles away. Olive is naturally desperate to go and show off the dance routine she has worked out with her drug-snorting grandfather (Alan Arkin), but the timing is less than perfect; Olive’s father (Greg Kinnear) is struggling to get people interested in his 9-step motivational programme, her half-brother Dwayne (Paul Dano) has taken a self-imposed vow of silence until he gets to fly Air Force jets, and her mother (Toni Collette) is an unhappy smoker, providing the family with such nutritious fare as bucket chicken. However, it’s hard to blame her when she has care of her brother Frank (Steve Carell), convalescing from a suicide attempt brought about by an unhappy gay love affair in which he lost out to an inferior Proust scholar. Without the resources to fly, the whole family are packed into a yellow VW bus/campervan to drive to Redondo so that Olive can make the finals.
As befits a road trip of this sort, a host of mishaps befall the family, from Olive being left behind to Dwayne making a tragic discovery, from Frank running into his would-be lover to Grandpa – well, making it to the beauty pageant, but probably not in the way he imagined. To make matters worse, the bickering family isn’t the only thing falling apart, as the bus sympathetically develops faults meaning that it has to be pushed to start; it then gets its horn half-jammed on, providing a pathetic commentary to the action. And when the family arrive at the pageant itself, it’s just the beginning of their troubles as they are not only late, but Olive’s homely appearance is at odds with the artificial, fake-tanned sparkle of the other contestants. Here, she is too normal, at least until the talent section of the show begins…
To deal with the pageant first, the ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ show is a version of a true American grotesque, and Olive’s burlesque performance within it is both weird and ironic (in that it shows up the other contestants’ performances for being equally distasteful, though they are praised); it would be less unsettling had the grandfather not shown such a penchant for pornography and declaiming the joys of jailbait, but to be fair his relationship with Olive appears perfectly normal.
As for the trials of the rest of the family, there is nothing terribly original about their plight: Kinnear’s Richard Hoover is a pompous ass who desperately contacts a prospective promoter, much like Paul Giamatti’s character in Sideways; and suicidal forsaken lovers are two a penny in the movies. Also, the ‘life is suffering’ message is a little trite (The Princess Bride does it less preachily, to be honest), and the jokes, while very funny (the sequence with the traffic cop is brilliant) are only fresh once. The film has at heart the familiar message that parents will go to any limits, and past them, for their children: but at least it doesn’t sell out, and the family remain cocooned in their own weirdness, Olive applauded at the end of her performance by just a sole, suspect member of the audience.
Little Miss Sunshine would have been destined for minor cult status (and mainstream obscurity) had it not picked up an amount of Oscar buzz; and while it possibly deserved its Writing award (I would have gone for the dazzling Pan’s Labyrinth, but there you go) there is no question that the acting throughout is superb. Kinnear plays the loser with a winner’s mentality with the perfect amount of conflict, and opposite him Toni Collette – as always – simply disappears into the role of Sheryl, offering her husband delicately measured spoonfuls of scorn and support, bravely failing her children when she can’t find words to help them. Arkin has a great time as the aggressively hedonistic patriarch and Carell puts in a sympathetic and low-key performance whilst still being very funny. Dano does brilliantly to convey most of his emotions while remaining silent; and Abigail Breslin brings (with the help of Olive’s glasses) a combination of geekiness and aspiration without ever coming across as brattish – this is very much a positive, since she is the film’s key motivating character.
A film which is fresh and honest without ever threatening to be realistic, Little Miss Sunshine treads a fine line: it shows that families don’t actually work very well and simultaneously lets us know that they’re the best we can hope for; and concludes with a life-affirming message which, thankfully, is much less sugary than it might have been. It’s difficult to know whether it’s a movie you need to have in your collection, but you would be doing yourself a disservice not to see it at all.