Last year, everybody was talking about why Americans didn’t want to go to the movies anymore, despite the dreary elephantine spectacles being rolled out for their enjoyment. This summer, in an arguably even more depressing development, people are flocking in record numbers to the dreary elephantine spectacles.
Little Miss Sunshine (Fox Searchlight)is a breezy goodbye to all that, a sweet-natured throwback to an era when once in a while, someone made a movie just for the hell of it. It won’t crush any box-office records or sell any tie-in toys, and it couldn’t give less of a damn. When I saw that this was the first feature film from Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the husband-and-wife commercial directors who used the haunting Nick Drake song “Pink Moon” as a ditty to sell Volkswagens, I feared the worst. But Little Miss Sunshine has not a hint of exploitation about it, and it’s sentimental only in the best sense of the word. Like its heroine Olive Hoover, it wears its heart on its sleeve and assumes the best about everyone, even when they don’t seem to deserve it.
Olive (played by Abigail Breslin) is a quiet little girl from Albuquerque, N.M., with giant eyeglasses, a slight potbelly, and only one dream—to compete in the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant, which she’s just qualified for in a last-minute fluke. But to get to Redondo Beach, Calif., in time for the pageant, she’ll need the help of her whole family, and this is a family that could use some help itself. Olive’s father, Richard, (Greg Kinnear) is an unsuccessful motivational speaker—a career description that’s a joke in itself, and that perfectly epitomizes this movie’s mix of hopelessness and pluck. His wife, Sheryl (Toni Collette), holds the family together with upbeat platitudes and buckets of takeout chicken, but she’s clearly reaching the end of her rope. Their older son, teenager Dwayne (Paul Dano), is a Nietzsche fanatic who’s taken a vow of silence until he’s old enough to become a fighter pilot; his communication with the family has dwindled to scrawling the words “I hate everybody” on a notepad.
If possible, the extended Hoover clan is even more miserable than the immediate family. Alan Arkin plays Richard’s father, an oversexed misanthrope who defends his heroin-snorting habit with the cogent argument, “I’m old!” and deflects further criticism by snarling, “I still got Nazi bullets in my ass.” And Frank (Steve Carell), Sheryl’s brother, is a total wreck, a suicidal gay academic who’s just lost his boyfriend to the second-greatest Proust scholar in the country. (Asked who the greatest is, he deadpans, “That would be me.”) With his wrists still bandaged from his latest attempt to kill himself, Frank can hardly be left alone, so he piles into the Hoovers’ ancient yellow VW bus and they all set out for California.
I am fully aware that this sounds like the setup for an overly cute family road picture, something heartwarming involving Robin Williams, poop jokes, and roadkill. But Little Miss Sunshine is not that kind of movie. If anything, the recent film it most recalls is You Can Count on Me (2000), another small treasure about a fractured family that managed to be moving without troweling on the sap. Little Miss Sunshine has some elements of farce, including extended sequences of physical comedy and an unlikely, exuberant finale. But it takes its characters very seriously indeed, and affords them a measure of dignity even at their most ridiculous.
Steve Carell is exquisitely cast in his first serious role, as the melancholic literature professor with a taste for Buns magazine. He even looks a little like Proust, with his hollow eyes and well-kempt beard, and he’s invented a special running gait for his character—you can see it on the movie’s poster—that’s both hilarious and telling. Alan Arkin is especially so as the genially filthy-minded grandfather, and Abigail Breslin, who nearly stole the movie Signs in a tiny part as Mel Gibson’s daughter, is an acting career waiting to happen. She’s not “cute” in the usual Hollywood sense, like those terrifying children in the Welch’s grape juice commercials. She’s cute the way real kids are: unpredictable, vulnerable, resilient, and tender.
The movie’s portrait of the world of juvenile beauty pageants, while frighteningly accurate in some ways, underestimates how hermetic and exclusionary these events must actually be—there’s not a chance in the world an amateur like Olive could ascend as high as she does here. And at least one of the movie’s subplots, having to do with Dwayne’s dream of a fighter-pilot career, pops out of nowhere, only to be resolved much too quickly and facilely. But it feels churlish to lodge too many complaints against Little Miss Sunshine. Like the broken-down VW bus that ferries the Hoovers cross-country, this film may be a ramshackle vehicle, but it gets you where you want to go.