A review of "Little Miss Sunshine" — 6 years ago
Three generations of a depressed family making their way in a clapped-out vehicle across America, hoping to find their share of the American Dream in California. That sounds like the Joads travelling hopefully in The Grapes of Wrath. It is also the plot of an amusing comedy, Little Miss Sunshine, the joint feature film debut of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, a husband-and-wife team whose background is in documentaries, commercials and music videos.
The Hoover family from Albuquerque, New Mexico, are presented to us as classically dysfunctional, struggling together with a Medusa-like raft of problems. Widowed Grandpa Hoover (Alan Arkin) has been thrown out of an old folks’ home for snorting heroin, swears incessantly and is obsessed with sex. He believes girls are at their sexual best around 15 and urges his virginal 16-year-old grandson to take advantage of this while he can get away with it.
That grandson, Dwayne (Paul Dano), has enough on his mind without this. He’s a nay-saying devotee of Nietszche, is obsessed with flying and has taken a vow of silence until he’s accepted by the Air Force Academy. Dwayne’s father, Richard (Greg Kinnear), believes his future lies in motivational teaching. He’s convinced that his unpublished book, Refuse to Lose, explaining the ‘Nine Steps to Success’, will make him rich and famous. His seven-year-old daughter, the plain, bespectacled Olive (Abigail Breslin), thinks she can become a beauty queen and has entered the national ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ contest.
Long-suffering Mom, Sheryl Hoover (Toni Collette), is the family’s fount of common sense, but she has a problem, too. Her destructive devotion to complete honesty rivals that of the truth-crazed Hickey in O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh. And she’s brought an additional worry into the family. Her brother Frank (Steve Carell), a depressed gay academic who regards himself as America’s number one Proust scholar, has come to live with the Hoovers after a failed suicide attempt. He tried to kill himself after losing both his job and his handsome young lover, who left him for a rival Proustian. All six actors are excellent, working together impressively and gradually winning our respect and sympathy.
Little Miss Sunshine opens with a brilliantly sustained dinner-table sequence in which they clash hilariously and give us the impression that the resolution of their individual problems and the establishment of domestic tranquillity are further away and less reachable than Mars. The movie eventually and unsentimentally establishes that both are possible. The first stage in this progress is a journey to California undertaken, with varying degrees of enthusiasm and reluctance, to accompany Olive to the Little Miss Sunshine pageant. She has accidentally got into the finals of the contest through the withdrawal of a regional winner to whom she was runner-up. The Hoovers can’t afford to fly, Grandpa and the suicidal Frank can’t be left behind, so they go in a decrepit VW minibus which is only a slight improvement on the Joads’ jalopy.
Along the way, they learn a good deal about themselves, some of it extremely painful – things to do with failure, with a future less promising than expected and with death. But the directors and their screenwriter, Michael Arndt, undercut the film’s awareness of the tragic sense of life with a bracing and healing humour.
One running joke, which continues to the final frame, centres on the VW bus. The clutch is ineffective and to keep going, they have to get the vehicle rolling at such a speed that only the top gears are necessary. So everyone gets out to push. Then one by one, as the car accelerates, they run alongside and jump or are pulled aboard. It’s like a crazy, non-vocal version of the ‘Goodbye’ song from The Sound of Music and becomes a comic image of working together in the face of adversity.
All the jokes arise naturally from the situations and are carefully prepared for. One of the biggest laughs comes when the gentle inquiry of a pageant official – ‘Is there anything else?’ – is met by the request: ‘Yes, is there a funeral parlour around here?’
The pageant at Redondo Beach is as amusingly handled as the canine competition in Christopher Guest’s Best in Show. The officials are pompous and self-regarding. Ogling the little girls and serenading them with an oleaginous version of ‘America the Beautiful’, the master of ceremonies seems to be providing evidence for the prosecution in a trial for paedophilia. The child contestants, in their make-up and skimpy adult clothing, knowingly ape adult ways.
They exhibit that ‘dimpled depravity’ Graham Greene discerned in the performances of eight-year-old Shirley Temple in his libellous review of Wee Willie Winkie. Had I not recently seen photographs and film clips of seven-year-old JonBenet Ramsey strutting her provocative stuff, I would have thought this an extravagant parody rather than reality.
It is in confronting this pageant and their own involvement in it that the Hoovers are finally drawn together in their rejection of celebrity, conformity, success-seeking and self-deception and their readiness to embrace a human reality that is so often dismissed as failure. Without getting smug or pompous, the movie takes on a moral dimension. Unfortunately, this is accompanied by a forced exuberance that isn’t altogether in keeping with the plausibility that has informed the rest of the film. But this is a minor matter in a refreshing and ultimately affirmative movie.