Little Miss Sunshine is proudly and unabashedly a feel-good film, daring you to remain cynical through its outrageous, transparently sentimental conclusion. Usually I would gag and spit as things turned sappy, but in this case I smiled and clapped along, content to be caught up in one family’s great reconciliation. The difference is that in most of these films, the characters never really behave like real people, and there comes a point where you realise you’ve been hoodwinked into watching stereotypes for an hour and a half. Here, the family dynamic resembles something like reality: the ‘fuck’ count is through the roof, Mom and Dad bicker and row then laugh about it, and they’re always having to rush to get places on time.
The title refers to a beauty pageant for 6 and 7 year-olds. The youngest of the Hoover clan, Olive (Abigail Breslin), has reached the finals. To me, this is a uniquely American concept: dress little girls up in cute costumes, slather them with makeup and fake tan, push them to cultivate a ‘talent’ that has virtually no use in later life, and most importantly, have them smile all the time. These parents create a somewhat lifelike robot then parade it in a horrible freakshow to see which one will be declared most frightening.
Olive isn’t all white teeth and peroxide hair, though; she’s an original, and not just because of her oversized spectacles and straggly hair. She’s a living, breathing entity, unlike all those other girls because she has cultivated original thought processes. She’s there because she enjoys it, not because her parents (Greg Kinnear and Toni Collette) have pushed her into it. Kinnear’s Richard is a pathetic creation, an aspiring self-help guru who will never know true positivity; Collette’s Sheryl is, well, it’s Toni Collette, so you know she’s somehow different from all the other characters she plays, despite being identical on paper. This actress needs to be rewarded with more great roles like what she was given in Japanese Story – she’s always compelling, always believable, always consistent.
Rounding out the family are Paul Dano, Steve Carell and Alan Arkin as the moody teenager, suicidal brother and crazy grandfather respectively. Again, in two words I can only describe them as though they are pure stereotypes, but each one is unique and well-acted. Especially Dano, whose sense of comedic timing is perfect. He’s taken a vow of silence, and when he eventually breaks it, it’s a great mixture of comedy and pathos. Carell is known as a talented comedian, and he’s funny here, but there’s a depth to his work that suggests a fine capacity for drama. Arkin’s completely carefree performance is good, too.
I spend so much time describing the actors’ work because it is so important in a film such as this. So many family comedies fail due to the lack of chemistry between the players; if even one character doesn’t work, a true family dynamic cannot be felt. I applaud these guys for getting it right. If there is a weak link here, it’s Kinnear, but only because he is just okay where everyone else is very good or excellent.
A point I would like to make is that by presenting such an awful, grotesque spectacle as the Little Miss Sunshine pageant we are shown, Dayton and Faris are contributing to the whole horrific concept. The girls that play these brief singing, dancing and smiling roles were probably cast by requesting cute little girls from talent agencies – some of whom, I’m sure, have been press-ganged into such an early career by their parents. I guess you have to undermine such things from within – there’s no other way they could have done it, really. Still, it’s the sort of thing I notice.
We’re all fucked up, and that’s okay. Not a particularly profound or new message, but while Little Miss Sunshine doesn’t break any new ground, it manages to be entertaining and absorbing for its duration. It has flaws and missteps – scenes that we would’ve been better off without, obvious plot devices – but I’m willing to forgive those of a film that practically has me up out of my seat cheering at a group of people performing cathartic dance steps. Many critics have called it ‘quirky‘, but I say it is those other ridiculous, unbelievable family comedies that are quirky; this one has a beating heart, an awareness of how we actually treat each other.