Little Miss Sunshine (2006) / Comedy-Drama
MPAA Rated: R for language, some sex, and drug content
Running Time: 101 min.
Cast: Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Steve Carell, Abigail Breslin, Paul Dano, Alan Arkin, Beth Grant, Bryan Cranston, Paula Newsome
Director: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris
Screenplay: Michael Arndt
If you were to hear the main premise of Little Miss Sunshine without having ever seen a preview, you'd probably dismiss it as just another knock-off of National Lampoon's Vacation series, and choose to ignore it. Don't. While this also features an eccentric, dysfunctional family on a road trip where calamity faces them at nearly every turn, there are far better laughs to be had in this semi-serious outing that in all four Vacation films combined, not to mention the moments of genuine warmth and depth of characterization. Unlike the most comedies, the best gags aren't already featured in the film's trailer, with at least a handful of them worth the price of admission to see on their own.
The film centers around the Hoovers, an Albuquerque, New Mexico family just barely scraping by, both financially and functionally. The father's failing in his career, his brother recovering from a suicide attempt, the grandfather is a heroin addict, and the son has withdrawn from the world so far that he refuses to speak verbally any longer to anyone in it. As difficult as it is to cope, they try their best to come together, if only for a short period, for the sake of their youngest member, seven-year-old Olive (Breslin, Keane), who has just been accepted as an entrant in the Little Miss Sunshine Beauty Pageant, taking place in just a few days in Redondo Beach, California. They can't afford to fly, nor can they leave anyone by themselves at home, so they are forced to take their yellow VW bus and hope they can make it in time to compete. Without much time, and also without much patience for each other, getting this family to their destination is easier said than done.
Although it seems simple, this is a surprisingly sharp and erudite screenplay, with commentary on family coping that allows it to transcend being just a run-of-the-mill typical road trip comedy. The yellow van (yellow often represents the color of sickness) can be seen as a metaphor for the dysfunctional family itself, as everyone on board is suffering from some malady that makes it difficult to cope with the day-to-day existence of home life. In order for the van to work, all of the members of it need to get out and push it, just as it takes all of them to make the family work, as difficult as it may be -- they are all in it together for the long haul.
These sorts of comedies are difficult to pull off, as the characters would come off as unlikable or too cartoonish for us to buy into their plight. Solid casting in every role reaps great rewards, as it's hard to imagine anyone doing a better job for each role than the respective actors do here, with especially fine performances by Alan Arkin (Firewall), Toni Collette (The Night Listener), and Abigail Breslin. Although the main story itself requires a huge dose of disbelief suspension in order to work, credit should also go to some very fine writing from first-time screenwriter Michael Arndt for some terrific work drawing out the characters, while the husband and wife team of Dayton and Faris show that music video directors can direct without over-stylizing, avoiding going for the easy and obvious jokes, then surprising us every so often, with almost every tragedy that befalls the family turning around and becoming the funniest.
Although not every member of the audience will love the film absolutely, there are enough funny parts and bits to think about, such that it's difficult to imagine anyone feeling that it wasn't worth their time in some substantial way or another, save perhaps some of the film's targets -- self-help lecturers and beauty pageant promoters, especially. Only after the experience of watching the film do I realize how unlikely a set of circumstances were contrived in order to get the whole family to go on this road trip, as well as the event in the film's climax that has them bonding together. However, with so many fond memories of scenes that I loved, it's quite futile to nitpick. While you're watching, it works, offering up a thoughtful, hilarious experience that will have you revisiting the kooky Hoovers from time to time, whether for reliving the good times or just for a bit of catharsis when you think you have it bad. You'll laugh until you cry -- and sometimes, you'll just cry.
©2006 Vince Leo