Saturday, February 03, 2007

Movie Review: "Little Miss Sunshine"

Starring Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Steve Carell, Paul Dano, Abigail Breslin and Alan Arkin
Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris

Official Web site

Having taken the journey from darling of last year’s Sundance Film Festival to a modest hit in theater multiplexes, and now to its new role as Oscar hopeful, “Little Miss Sunshine” is a film that’s not quite as good as all its hype. Still, it’s a pretty great film that could easily walk away with a few Academy Awards when Feb. 25 comes and goes.

The screenplay from Michael Arndt is filled with interesting characters who are placed in one of Hollywood’s tried and true stories – a family bonding on a road trip. However, he makes this particular family far from a fully functioning unit, as there’s a greater fear that the Hoovers might be headed towards collapsing, rather than bonding.

The inquisitive and sensitive Olive, the 7-year-old daughter (Abigail Breslin) of Richard (Greg Kinnear) and Sheryl (Toni Collette), finds out early in the picture that she’s a finalist for the Little Miss Sunshine pageant. This means the family will be heading to the pageant from New Mexico to California, taking their perpetually sullen teenage son Dwayne, gruff and foul-mouthed Grandpa (Alan Arkin) and Uncle Frank (Steve Carell), who is new to their home after a failed suicide attempt. So, yeah, it’s pretty far from The Brady Bunch.

Adding to the family’s less-than-ideal situation, the clutch to their banana yellow VW van (practically a character itself) goes out early on the trip, forcing the family to literally get out and push to get the vehicle’s forward motion started. It’s a running gag in the film that manages to produce laughs every time.

While there are certainly particular aspects of the storyline that hit predictable notes – including more than one that crib from “National Lampoon’s Vacation” – the development of the characters and the eventual payoff at the pageant keep the movie entertaining. Plus, the film isn’t afraid to throw dark twists into conventional situations. A scene where the family is pulled over by a highway patrolman mines comedy in unexpected ways, for example.

But it would be unfair to say that “Little Miss Sunshine” is just out to earn a few laughs along the way, as some of the fights and situations the family members find themselves in feel all too real. Case in point is a sudden story development with Dwayne that is almost jarring in its heavy emotional content, as it momentarily stops the laughter in its tracks. Olive’s handling of the situation speaks volumes, even as she says nothing.

The acting is pretty much exceptional across the board, with Carell and Kinnear as two particular standouts, along with Breslin, who is the heart of the movie. Hopefully, her Oscar nomination for the performance is just the beginning of a memorable career.

Some might criticize the film’s sometimes heavy cynical tone, but it comes off as realistic from these characters. Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris make it a point to not sugarcoat the pageant proceedings, which hardly could be associated with fun. It certainly makes you wonder why parents would subject their children to them, if this is any kind of example of what they’re like. There’s a bit of an uncomfortable feeling underscoring some of the pageant scenes, which makes Olive’s showstopping performance for the talent portion of the competition all the more welcome. You’ll certainly never listen to Rick James’ “Superfreak” the same way again.

Grade: B+
(Rated R for language, some sex and drug content.)

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