If you think your family is a little on the nutty side, spending an hour and forty minutes with the Little Miss Sunshine clan might make you feel a little better. Then again, it might not. Patriarch Richard (Greg Kinnear) is about to bankrupt himself in pursuit of a new self help plan he’s developed called “The Nine Steps.” His wife Sheryl (Toni Collette) has just brought home her brother, Frank (Steve Carell), a Proust scholar recovering from a recent suicide attempt. Richard’s crotchety father (Alan Arkin) has just been kicked out of his retirement community for using heroin, while their son Dwayne (Paul Dano) has taken a vow of silence until he gets accepted into the air force. Rounding out the pack is the adorable Olive (Signs’ Abigail Breslin), who dreams of winning the titular pageant. Written by first-timer Michael Arndt and directed by relative newbies Jonathan Faris and Valerie Dayton, Little Miss Sunshine takes the familiar forms of the “road movie” and the “wacky family comedy” to some very dark places.
Fortunately for the filmmakers, their cast is top-notch. Everyone hits all the right notes and this is truly an ensemble film. Kinnear has honed his Midwest, white-bread energy over the past ten years and his desperation as Frank (whose biggest fear is being a loser) is palpable. He spars well with Collette (who also played his wife in the HBO movie of Donald Margulies’ overrated play Dinner with Friends), and their dynamic as a married couple is completely credible. If Collette’s part is less showy than the rest of the bunch, it’s because she’s the sane center of this weird bunch. While her character could have used a bit more of her own story, Collette brings an earthy practicality to her role that helps balance the tone of the film. Arkin has his best role in years as the outspoken Grandpa, who has taken a hedonistic approach to his golden years. Breslin is just right as cutie-pie Olive, all the more so because there is absolutely nothing child-actress-y about her. As her brother, Dano continues to build on the promise he showed in the terrific indie, L.I.E. Finally, we have Carell, who does wonders with his small-ish part as the depressive uncle. Carell has made his name in comedy, but what makes his work so good is his ability to convey a kind of melancholy soulfulness. He’s a terrific actor and this change-of-pace role showcases his versatility.
The only drawbacks to Little Miss Sunshine are behind the camera. Occasionally, Arndt strains too hard for the “crazy” humor and in doing so, the film leaves reality behind on more than a few occasions. The directors would also have done well to trim a few scenes down to streamline the action more. In the end, the film doesn’t quite achieve the resonance that everyone involved probably wanted. Ironically, its best moments are when the film isn’t trying to be funny at all, and a kind of sad irony envelopes the characters. Arguably the biggest laugh-out-loud sequence comes towards the end, achieving a kind of genuine, silly oddness that felt so forced in Napoleon Dynamite. Despite Little Miss Sunshine’s rough edges, it created characters who—despite their aggravating faults and idiosyncrasies—I wanted to spend time with. And much like family, I felt a little sad to see them go.
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