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Little Miss Sunshine /

Rated: R

Starring: Abigail Breslin, Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Steve Carell, Alan Arkin, Paul Dano

Directed by: Jonathan Dayton, Varerie Farris

Produced by: Albert Berger, David T. Friendly, Peter Saraf, Marc Turtletaub, Ron Yerxa

Written by: Michael Arndt

Distributor: Fox Searchlight Releasing


"Why don't you talk?...Is that Nietzsche [in that poster on the wall]?...You don't talk because of Frederich Nietzsche?"
--Frank (Steve Carell), Little Miss Sunshine

     It's been a week since I've seen Little Miss Sunshine, the latest amazing Sundance Crowd Pleaser ready to take the moviegoing-public by storm, and I've been reciting the above quotation to everyone I know who hasn't heard of the film. To say the least, I haven't been successful in making them laugh at the line, let alone motivating them to go see the movie. And, as I stubbornly typed it at the heading of this review, I discovered why. It's because Steve Carrell's delivery of the line makes it the biting piece of hilarity that it is and, because of its unique brilliance, this delivery is impossible to imitate. In fact, the same could be said for the whole of Little Miss Sunshine; its carefully crafted plot and dialogue could have, in the hands of less-skilled actors, seemed conventional and nonchalant. But because there is not a single weak-link to be found in filmmaking husband-and-wife Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris' cast, their picture comes together in a way that is magical, true-to-life, and beautifully uplifting.

     Little Miss Sunshine follows the dysfunctional Hoover family as they drive in their broken-down VW-Microbus Van from Albuquerque, New Mexico to Redondo Beach, California to attend a beauty pageant that their youngest member, Olive, will be competing in. Olive is a hopeful dreamer who brings out the positive in each member of her family, even if they're constantly at war with each other. Anything but the typical superficial children's beauty-pageant participant, Olive is lovably dorky, quirky, and curious. While the film does have a lot to say about the type of contest that she competes in, it's more about the coming together of her somewhat clueless family. Olive's dad, Richard (Greg Kinnear), is a motivational speaker trying to sell his Five-Step Plan in a book deal, losing sight of what really matters to him. Her mother, Sheryl (Toni Collete), is too concerned with working, keeping her marriage together, and and putting Drive-Thru Fried Chicken and Iceberg-Lettuce Salad on the table for dinner that she doesn't have time for much else. Also along for the ride across the Southwestern portion of the United States are Grandpa (Alan Arkin), who is addicted to cocaine but shows Olive the kind of compassion that she deserves; Brother Dwayne (Paul Dano), who has taken a vow of silence until he becomes a Fighter Pilot; and Uncle Frank (Steve Carell), a gay college-professor who is the family's "care" after attempting suicide.

     The story might seem conventional on the surface, but that's only because it has been written and performed in dozens of conventional ways before. In truth, the plot that directors Dayton and Farris take on creates some of the most original situations in modern-film. The ways in which these lost but lovable characters interact with each other is fascinating. One of my favorite scenes in the movie occurs when they stop for food at a restaurant and, Olive, intrigued by the name and constrained to a $4-dollar-budget, asks for the Waffles a la mode. After ordering, her father, wallowing in the pain of his own failures, tells her that she shouldn't eat the ice-cream portion of her dish because "winners don't get fat." Mom sits back and takes this for awhile, as she has been forced to in her own relationship with him, but as the outspoken Grandfather comes to Olive's aid, the family joins in against Dad. But the argument isn't presented in the form of the angry, venerating debate that this type of indie would typically indulge in for "realism's sake." Instead, the family merely begins to tempt Olive by eating the ice-cream, forcing her to finally surrender from her father's wishes and dive in herself. Some might dub the approach sappy or sentimental, but it's conducted without a whiff of exploitation. The characters act as if they were real people and the film's development of their personalities is enriched in the scene. Much helped by strength in both the departments of dialogue (written by first-timer Michael Arndt) and acting, it's passages like these that build to allow Little Miss Sunshine's finale to be the affecting, uplifting climax that it is.

     Unlike in many other character-driven works, no one personality takes the spotlight here. The Hoovers are viewed as a family-unit throughout the duration of Little Miss Sunshine; this is more of a movie about characters' relationships and how they are affected by internal-conflict, rather than solely the later. Each performance stands out in its own way, accentuating the authenticity of the given Hoover while still maintaining the script's satiric edge. Viewers will be able to objectively (and comically) look at the characters' faults, but also deeply identify with their normal qualities, developing both sympathetic and empathetic feelings for them. The movie is both hysterical and heartfelt, both dreamy and realistic. I loved every moment of it, and I hope that it finds a huge audience as it rolls out into theatres across the country. Little Miss Sunshine is one of the best movies of the year.

-Danny, Bucket Reviews (8.21.2006)

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